DHEA Supplements: Uses, Side Effects and Risks

DHEA supplement capsule held between two fingers

DHEA is a supplement that’s used by some people to grow muscle, increase sex drive, slow the symptoms of aging, and improve certain health conditions. Here’s what the research has to say about DHEA supplements, and everything you need to know about their use.

What is DHEA?

DHEA is short for dehydroepiandrosterone, and is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands, which are located right above the kidneys. DHEA supplements can be made from soy and wild yam.

Scientists aren’t able to fully understand the functions of DHEA. It is known that DHEA acts as a precursor for male and female sexual hormones, such as testosterone and estrogen. Precursors are substances which are converted into a hormone in the body.

During our mid 20’s, DHEA production peaks, after which production slowly decreases. The production of both testosterone and estrogen also typically declines with age. DHEA supplements may increase these hormones.

Many claims have been made regarding their health benefits. These claims include:

  • Supports adrenal gland health
  • Boosts the immune system
  • Slowing of age-related changes in the body
  • Increased energy
  • Improved mood and cognitive function
  • Greater muscle and bone strength

DHEA Supplements to Fight Aging

Some researchers believe that supplementing with DHEA could help to fight the effects of aging, since DHEA levels decrease with age. Some limited studies have shown positive anti-aging benefits from using DHEA supplements. However, a similar amount of research has not shown the same effects.

DHEA supplements don’t appear to alter the aging process, according to the NMCD (Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database).

It is also not known what the long-term effects of DHEA use will do, and there are some concerns that ongoing use of DHEA supplements could be risky.

DHEA Supplements to Treat Health Conditions

There is some evidence that DHEA supplements may help to ease mild to moderate depression. However, further research is necessary.

Researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health discovered that DHEA supplementation helped to relieve mild-to-moderate depression in middle-aged individuals. DHEA could also help with improving aging skin in senior citizens.

The NIH and National Standard both say that DHEA is not enough evidence to determine the effectiveness of DHEA in treating other conditions, for example:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Decreased bone density
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Cervical cancer
  • CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome)
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Fertility issues
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Schizophrenia
  • Low libido/Erectile dysfunction

Both organizations also say there is little evidence to that DHEA is effective in treating conditions like fibromyalgia, cognitive function, muscle strength, or boosting the immune system.

DHEA Side Effects

Some potential side effects of using DHEA supplements may include:

  • Acne and oily skin
  • Hair loss
  • Upset stomach
  • Hypertension
  • Disturbances of the menstrual cycle
  • Facial hair and/or deepening of the voice in women
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Irregular or rapid heart beat
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Increased cholesterol levels

A few of these side effects could be caused by DHEA increasing estrogen and testosterone levels in the body. Experts warn that there is little information available concerning the long-term effects of having increased hormone levels.

Ongoing use of DHEA supplements should not be done without first speaking with a health care professional.

DHEA and Weight Loss

A form of DHEA called 7-Keto has been widely promoted as a supplement to decrease body fat and boost the metabolism. The premise is that having leaner body mass an elevated metabolism will burn calories more effectively, making it less difficult to not just lose weight, but to keep it off.

The majority of research has not shown DHEA to have much effect on weight loss or metabolism. Before you decide to take DHEA for weight loss, it’s recommended that you talk to your doctor.

DHEA and Performance Enhancement

Athletes often take DHEA supplements to increase their muscle strength and boost athletic performance. DHEA is considered a prohormone, which is a substance that increases the levels of steroid hormones like testosterone.

DHEA does not appear to much effect on muscle strength. Nevertheless, sports organizations like the National Football League, Major League Baseball and the National Collegiate Athletic Association have all banned the use of DHEA, as it is considered a legal PED.

The use of any pre-steroid enhancement comes with risks. The greater the dose, the higher the risks.

Potential side effects can include:

  • A permanent cessation of growth
  • Aggressiveness and irritability, commonly referred to as “roid rage”
  • Psychological disturbances, including mood swings
  • Hypertension
  • Liver damage
  • Elevated cholesterol levels

Because DHEA can raise the amount of both testosterone and estrogen in the body, women who use DHEA can potentially experience side effects, such as:

  • Deepening of the voice
  • Hair loss
  • Facial hair growth

Additionally, men can sometimes experience these symptoms:

  • Gynecomastia (enlarged breasts)
  • Shrinking of the testicles
  • Decreased sperm count

Talking to Your Doctor

There are many reasons to discuss DHEA supplementation with your doctor before you consider using it:

  • Many DHEA claims involve serious medical conditions. These conditions should be examined and treated by a medical professional.
  • DHEA supplements could interact with certain medications and could interfere with their effectiveness.
  • DHEA can increase the levels of male and female hormones. This can increase the risk for hormone-sensitive cancers, like breast, ovarian or prostate cancer.
  • There is some risk involved with DHEA use, and it can potentially cause a wide of side effects.

References:

  1. medlineplus.gov/druginfo/natural/331.html
  2. www.isoad.org/Assets/userfiles/sys_eb538c1c-65ff-4e82-8e6a-a1ef01127fed/files/Resouce/can_we_prevent_aging_0.pdf
  3. www.nccih.nih.gov/health/menopausal-symptoms-in-depth
  4. www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements-dhea/art-20364199
  5. academic.oup.com/jcem/article/90/9/E2/2838645
  6. www.webmd.com/diet/dhea-supplements
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