The Benefits of DHEA Supplements

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Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a steroid hormone available in dietary supplement form. Found naturally in your body, it's made in the adrenal glands. The DHEA found in dietary supplements is a synthetic form of the hormone, produced from diosgenin (a substance found in soy and wild yams).

Although many soy and wild yam products are marketed as natural sources of DHEA, the National Institutes of Health warn that the body can't convert wild yam compounds into DHEA on its own.

Why Do People Take DHEA Supplements?

In your body, DHEA is converted into male and female sex hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone. Proponents suggest that taking DHEA in supplement form can boost your levels of estrogen and testosterone and—in turn—protect against health problems associated with hormone imbalances and/or aging-related declines in hormone levels.

Since low levels of DHEA have been detected in some individuals with conditions like diabetes, breast cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, and kidney disease, DHEA supplements are also commonly used as an alternative remedy to treat or prevent such conditions.

Uses for DHEA

DHEA is said to aid in the treatment or prevention of the following health problems: Alzheimer's disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, erectile dysfunction, fatigue, fibromyalgia, lupus, menopausal symptoms, metabolic syndrome, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson's disease.

DHEA is also said to slow up the aging process, improve sports performance, enhance libido, promote weight loss, and bolster the immune system.

In addition, DHEA supplements are frequently marketed as testosterone-boosting agents and used for such purposes as increasing muscle mass and reducing fat mass. 

Research on DHEA

Here's a look at the science behind the potential health benefits of taking DHEA supplements:

1) Osteoporosis

So far, scientific studies evaluating DHEA's effects on bone health have yielded mixed results. The most recent research on DHEA and osteoporosis includes a study published in Clinical Endocrinology in 2015, in which researchers measured the bone mineral density of 1,089 healthy men and found that those with the highest blood levels of DHEA had a significantly higher bone mineral density (compared to those with the lowest DHEA levels).

On the other hand, a study published in Osteoporosis International in 2008 suggests that DHEA supplements may improve bone mineral density in women but fail to enhance bone health in men.

In this study, 225 healthy adults (ages 55 to 85) took either DHEA supplements or a placebo every day for one year. At the study's end, DHEA appeared to have had a positive effect on some measures of bone mineral density in female participants. Male participants, however, showed no significant changes in bone mineral density following treatment with DHEA.

2) Depression

DHEA may be of some benefit in the treatment of depression, according to a research review published in Current Drug Targets in 2014.

In their analysis of 22 previously published studies, the review's authors found that DHEA supplementation was associated with significant improvements among patients with depression. What's more, the review found that DHEA may relieve depressive symptoms in people with conditions like schizophrenia and anorexia nervosa.

Additional Research

Emerging research indicates that DHEA shows promise in the treatment of a number of other health conditions, including chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, menopausal symptoms, and metabolic syndrome. However, further research is needed before DHEA can be recommended in the treatment of any of these conditions.

Side Effects & Safety Concerns

Because DHEA is a hormone, it should only be used under the supervision of a qualified health practitioner. Furthermore, children and pregnant or nursing women should not use DHEA.

Side effects commonly associated with DHEA include: abdominal pain, acne, breast tenderness, deepening of the voice in women, facial hair growth, fatigue, greasy or oily skin, hair loss, heart palpitations, high blood pressure, insomnia, irregular or rapid heartbeats, irregular menses, male pattern baldness, mood disturbance, nasal congestion, shrinkage of the testicles, skin itching, urinary urgency, increased aggression, and weight gain around the waist. DHEA may alter the production of cholesterol and hormones such as insulin, thyroid hormones, and adrenal hormones. Theoretically, DHEA may increase the risk of hormone-sensitive cancers such as breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers.

Although research on the safety of long-term or regular use of DHEA is currently lacking, there's some concern that it may alter liver function, interfere with cholesterol control, affect hormone levels (such as insulin, thyroid hormones, and adrenal hormones), and increase the risk of blood clots. Therefore, people with liver disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, thyroid disorders, blood clotting disorders, hormonal disorders, or hormone-sensitive conditions (such as breast cancer and prostate cancer) should take caution when using DHEA. Those with a history of heart disease or stroke should avoid DHEA supplements.

Since high DHEA levels have been associated with psychotic disorders, people with or at risk for psychotic disorders should only use DHEA under the supervision of their healthcare provider.

It's also possible that DHEA supplements could inhibit the body's ability to produce DHEA on its own.

Theoretically, DHEA supplements may interfere with the effectiveness of antipsychotic drugs, HIV medication, barbiturates, estrogen and oral contraceptives, testosterone, benzodiazepines, corticosteroids, insulin, lithium, cancer medications, and prescription drugs that are broken down by the same liver enzymes as DHEA.

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