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Dec 02, 2021
7 min read

DHEA benefits and side effects

DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is a hormone that’s both naturally produced by our bodies and can be taken as a dietary supplement. DHEA supplements are touted for various health benefits, but many of the purported claims are not backed by research. While DHEA is available both as a prescription and a supplement, it is recommended that you speak with a healthcare provider before taking DHEA.

steve silvestro

Reviewed by Steve Silvestro, MD

Written by Alexandria Bachert

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

You may have noticed the bottles of DHEA supplements lining the shelves of your local pharmacy or Whole Foods, but if you’re like most people, you probably didn’t stop to ponder what exactly those four letters represent. Don’t worry—we’ve got you covered. 

To start, DHEA, or dehydroepiandrosterone, is a hormone that our bodies produce naturally and eventually turn into hormones such as estrogen or testosterone. Our levels of DHEA change throughout our life span, with DHEA production peaking in young adulthood and then declining as we age (Herbet, 2007).

By the time we reach the age of 30, our DHEA levels begin decreasing significantly. It’s around this time that people might consider consulting their healthcare provider, friends, or the internet to learn more about DHEA supplements and their so-called anti-aging properties, their ability to boost cognitive function, and various other advertised health benefits.

If you’re not sure if you have low levels of DHEA or why you might need supplements, read on to learn more about what DHEA can and cannot do.

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DHEA benefits and uses

Various claims have been made regarding the potential health benefits of DHEA. 

Over the years, the supplement has gained traction for its supposed ability to improve energy, mood, and memory. It’s also been studied for its potential to enhance sexual function, improve adrenal insufficiency, and manage body fat—yet there’s little research to actually prove these benefits (Klinge, 2018). 

In fact, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) believes there is unclear evidence to support DHEA’s benefits for treating any conditions other than vaginal atrophy, aging skin, depression, and infertility (NIH, 2020-a). 

If you’re considering a DHEA supplement, read on to learn what the evidence says about the many purported mental and physical health benefits of DHEA.

DHEA for women 

DHEA treatment has been studied for various women’s health conditions and has actually been proven as an effective treatment for vaginal atrophy, a common condition in which the vaginal walls become thinner after menopause.

Menopause typically occurs around the age of 50 and marks the natural decline in a woman’s reproductive hormones. This decrease in hormone levels can cause vaginal dryness or inflammation of the vaginal walls, which can then lead to pain during sex (called dyspareunia), as well as urinary symptoms (Labrie, 2016). 

If you’re experiencing vaginal atrophy, talk to your healthcare provider about trying prescription DHEA vaginal inserts. Vaginal inserts like prasterone (brand name Intrarosa) were approved by the FDA in 2016 and can increase DHEA levels and reduce pain during sex in women after menopause (FDA, 2016). 

As an added bonus, a 2017 systematic review examined 38 clinical studies evaluating the use of DHEA and its effect on sexual function. The researchers found that it improved sexual function in women who were about to enter menopause or who had just finished menopause (Peixoto, 2017).

Switching gears to the skin, some scientific evidence has shown that topical DHEA might help reduce the signs of skin aging in postmenopausal women (El-Alfy, 2010).

DHEA for men

DHEA has also been researched for its role in men’s health, including how it influences male development during puberty.

Many of the hallmarks of awkward tween and teenage years––oily skin, body odor, and pubic hair––can be attributed at least in part to DHEA. Later in life, once their natural supply of DHEA starts to dwindle, some men may turn to DHEA supplements to boost their testosterone levels, although that purported benefit has not been proven. 

While additional research is still needed to determine if there are any concrete benefits of DHEA supplementation for men, there have been some studies that specifically look at DHEA’s role in erectile dysfunction. 

DHEA for erectile dysfunction

Erectile dysfunction (ED) occurs when a man can’t get or maintain an erection sufficient for satisfying sex. Small studies have suggested that DHEA can help improve ED in men, but more research is needed to confirm the findings. 

An older study published in a medical journal called Urology looked at 30 men with erectile dysfunction who were assigned a daily DHEA supplement or a placebo pill for six months. At the end of the study, the men treated with DHEA supplements experienced a significant improvement in their ability to achieve or maintain an erection (Reiter, 1999). 

A more recent review of research determined that while data looks promising, more research is needed to determine what benefit DHEA may have for ED (El-Sakka, 2018).

DHEA for physical performance

While there’s some data on DHEA for sexual performance, its impact on physical performance is a bit more controversial. 

DHEA is included in the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of prohibited substances, but there’s actually limited evidence suggesting that it can enhance athletic performance or muscle strength. To date, there have been several randomized long-term trials with older adults and short-term studies with healthy male athletes, but none demonstrated any significant benefits (Hahner, 2010). 

DHEA for obesity

In general, the consensus is that more research is required in order to identify an association between DHEA and obesity.

Some small studies suggest that DHEA can help reduce markers of type 2 diabetes like abdominal fat and insulin resistance (Villareal, 2004). However, other research suggests that DHEA supplements are not all that effective for weight loss and treating obesity (Jedrzejuk, 2003).

DHEA for immune function

There currently isn’t enough evidence to allow us to fully understand DHEA’s potential effect on immune function. For the few immune diseases for which DHEA’s effects have been tested, the results have not been promising.

Research shows that DHEA is likely ineffective for improving symptoms of a condition called Sjögren syndrome that causes dry eyes and dry mouth (Hartkamp, 2008). And not enough is known to understand DHEA’s potential effectiveness for treating systemic lupus erythematosus, an autoimmune disease that causes widespread inflammation and kidney problems (Crosbie, 2007).

DHEA for depression and other mental health disorders

Extensive research has been done to evaluate the possible role of DHEA in treating depression, and while the results are promising, more research is needed to determine whether DHEA could potentially be used as a therapeutic agent (Peixoto, 2014). 

DHEA supplements

As we mentioned, the body produces DHEA naturally but levels peak in early adulthood then gradually decline with age. Currently, in the United States, DHEA is sold as a supplement, and as a prescription medication called prasterone (brand names Intrarosa, Diandrone, and Gynodian Depot). 

While prescription use of DHEA is something you can discuss with your doctor, the currently available evidence is not enough to recommend the use of DHEA as a  supplement for any reason. 

Lab versions of dehydroepiandrosterone supplementation are sometimes made from chemicals found in wild yam. However, yam cannot be converted into DHEA in the body, so simply eating yam will not provide you with the DHEA you’re after (NIH, 2020-b).

DHEA dosage

DHEA dosage varies by the specific need and formula. For vaginal atrophy (thinning of vaginal tissue) associated with menopause, your healthcare provider can prescribe a vaginal insert like Intrarosa. This usually contains 0.5% DHEA and is used once per day for 12 weeks (NIH, 2020-a).

DHEA side effects and interactions

The most common side effects of DHEA supplements are usually mild, although more serious side effects are possible with high doses or long-term use. 

People may experience acne, hair loss, stomach upset, or high blood pressure. For some women, changes in their menstrual cycle, facial hair growth, and a deeper voice may develop after taking DHEA. Taking DHEA may also cause problems for people with liver disease, diabetes, polycystic ovary disease (PCOS), high cholesterol, and depression, as well as women who are pregnant or breastfeeding  (NIH, 2020-a).

DHEA supplements also carry a list of potential interactions with various medications, including some commonly-used medications for depression, as well as over-the-counter drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen. As a result, healthcare providers may advise people to be cautious with certain combinations. You can find more information about specific drug contraindications here (NIH, 2020-a).

If you’re considering supplementing with DHEA to reap some of the potential benefits listed above, reach out to your healthcare provider who can provide you with more information about DHEA supplementation. 

References

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