What Women Need to Know About DHEA for Sexuality and Wellbeing

Dhea capsules and tablets

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a steroid hormone that is naturally produced in the body. As we age, DHEA levels gradually drop off. However, there has been a lot of talk about DHEA supplements and how they may affect our sexuality as well as our mental and physical health.

Does DHEA provide effective relief for sexual problems, mental health issues, or physical health issues? Or is buying DHEA a waste of your money?

DHEA Production in the Body

It's not yet clear what all DHEA does for the body, though scientists studying its function have made a few key discoveries.

DHEA is an androgen (male sex hormone) that the body converts into both the male hormone, testosterone, and the female hormone, estradiol. The majority of DHEA is produced in the adrenal glands—located above each kidney—while smaller amounts are also produced in the intestinal tract and the brain, along with the ovaries (for women), and the testes (for men).

DHEA production varies with age in both men and women, though women have lower concentrations of it compared to men of the same age. The body begins to produce DHEA at about 6 to 8 years old, and levels peak between 20 and 30 years of age. By 70 to 80 years of age, the amount of DHEA produced is about 10% to 20% of the amount produced in young adults.

Potential Benefits for Women

Many claims have been touted for DHEA. You may have heard that it can:

  • Increase your energy level
  • Help you to lose weight
  • Slow down the aging process
  • Boost your immune system
  • Reduce your risk of cancer and heart disease
  • Improve your memory

Nonetheless, there is little evidence to support these claims, and what studies have been done are either too small or too dated to be certain about the results.

Research Findings

Scientists still do not understand how DHEA works, what its purpose is in the body, and whether it is safe and effective when used as a supplement. In other words, the jury is still out on DHEA. Here's what we know so far:

May Increase Libido

According to a small German study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), researchers found that DHEA improved sexuality and well-being in 24 women diagnosed with adrenal insufficiency.

The double-blind study found that women who took 50 milligrams (mg) of DHEA daily reported significant increases in how often they thought about sex, how interested they were in sexual activity, and their levels of both mental and physical sexual satisfaction.

These women also reported improvement in mental health issues such as obsessive-compulsive traits, depression, anxiety, and other psychological conditions. The most significant improvements were seen four months after treatment began.

Side effects were reported by almost 20% of the study participants and included oily skin, acne, and increased body hair, which are all signs and symptoms of excessive androgen levels in the body. In addition, one woman reported hair loss. Reducing the amount of DHEA the woman took ended the hair loss.

May Support Infertility Treatment

In a 2013 study of women over the age of 40 who were struggling to get pregnant, 38 women took DHEA supplements for at least 12 weeks before starting in vitro fertilization (IVF). The women had significantly higher rates of spontaneous pregnancy both before and after their IVF treatments began. Though this would suggest that DHEA may improve ovarian function, larger studies are needed before DHEA supplementation can be recommended as a complementary treatment for infertility.

May Improve Mood

Another small study of 22 male and female patients diagnosed with major depression, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, found a 50% decrease in depression in nearly half of the participants who took DHEA compared to none in the placebo group. The study authors state that larger trials are needed to evaluate the safety of taking DHEA and that the hormone should only be taken under medical supervision.

DHEA Side Effects

DHEA is a powerful steroid hormone that could induce hormone-related changes in the body. There are some side effects that women should be aware of. See your doctor if you develop any of the following:

  • Breast pain, swelling, or changes in breast appearance
  • Facial hair or growth in places that are not typical for you
  • Oily skin and acne
  • Hoarseness in your voice
  • Nausea, vomiting, or flu-like symptoms
  • Menstrual changes
  • Changes in sex drive
  • High blood pressure

Contraindications

There is a possibility that taking DHEA as a supplement may increase the risk of hormone-sensitive conditions, such as cervical cancer, breast cancer, and endometriosis. If you have cancer or have an increased risk of developing it, you should talk to your doctor before taking DHEA.

In addition, not enough is known about the use of DHEA supplements in pregnant or nursing women. For this reason, women who are pregnant, nursing, or could become pregnant should not take DHEA.

What You Need to Know About DHEA Supplements

The major problem with studies on DHEA is that most have included only a small number of participants (as noted in the studies above).

Some believe that DHEA is useful for hormone replacement therapy during menopause and suggest taking low doses of this supplement. However, considerable controversy remains regarding supplementation with this powerful hormone, and careful research is strongly advised before you begin taking this supplement.

Keep in mind that because the FDA classifies DHEA as a dietary supplement, manufacturers of DHEA have no obligation to prove that their products are either safe or effective.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best time of day to take DHEA?

You can take DHEA at any time but your body naturally produces it in the morning. If you want to follow the natural rhythm of your body, take DHEA in the morning.

Are there natural ways to increase DHEA without taking a supplement?

No. DHEA can be found in soy and yams, but this doesn't increase DHEA levels in the body the way a supplement does.

Can DHEA react negatively with other drugs?

Yes! There are a number of drugs that can interact with DHEA, including but not limited to: anastrozole, exemestane, fulvestrant, insulin, antidepressants, anticoagulants, some corticosteroids, and hormonal drug therapies.

Can I get a test to check DHEA levels?

Yes, you can get a simple blood test that will determine the amount of DHEA sulfate in your blood, but most people do not get this test unless they experience symptoms that may indicate an abnormal DHEA level.

A Word From Verywell

There is a lot of contradictory information out there about the safety and effectiveness of DHEA supplements for women. Before trying any OTC supplements, it's always a good idea to weigh the pros and cons with your healthcare provider and to inform them if you are taking any other medications. If you choose to purchase a DHEA supplement, be sure to thoroughly vet the manufacturer and only buy from a company you trust.

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