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There’s no shortage of online sites urging you to try DHEA supplements for all sorts of purported benefits, like anti-aging, weight loss, brain health, and erectile dysfunction. But do these claims hold any water? The answer is maybe—at least for some. Let’s look at what DHEA does and when it makes sense to take a DHEA supplement.
DHEA, or dehydroepiandrosterone, is a chemical (hormone) your body produces naturally. It’s used to build other key hormones like estrogen and testosterone. Your DHEA levels peak in young adulthood and decline after age 30 (Herbet, 2007). But does supplementing with DHEA have any benefit?
Some people believe that DHEA supplements can improve energy, mood, and memory. There are also claims about its potential to enhance sexual function, prevent conditions like cancer, lupus, and Alzheimer’s disease, and regulate body fat to treat obesity—yet there’s little research to support these claims (Klinge, 2018; Olech, 2005).
That said, certain people may benefit from taking a DHEA supplement.
DHEA for sexual health
Since DHEA is involved in building sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone, it also affects sexual health.
DHEA for women after menopause
Some studies suggest that DHEA may provide some sexual health benefits for women after menopause, like increased vaginal lubrication, decreased vaginal dryness, increased sexual interest, and decreased pain during sex. People about to enter or just starting menopause seem to experience the most benefits (Peixoto, 2017)
DHEA creams and DHEA vaginal inserts may also help treat vaginal atrophy, a condition in which the vaginal walls become thinner (Panjari, 2011). Vaginal inserts like prasterone (brand name Intrarosa) are FDA-approved to treat vaginal atrophy and reduce pain during sex in women after menopause (FDA, 2016).
DHEA for erectile dysfunction
Erectile dysfunction (ED) is when an individual can’t get or maintain an erection sufficient for satisfying sex. Some people believe that DHEA may help manage ED. DHEA affects the level of testosterone, which plays a role in sexual health and erectile function. Some studies suggest that DHEA supplements can boost testosterone levels in men (Liu, 2013).
A small study of 30 men with erectile dysfunction found that men with ED who took a daily DHEA supplement for six months experienced a significant improvement in their ability to achieve or maintain an erection compared to those who took a placebo (Reiter, 1999).
However, a review of 10 studies found that while DHEA data for ED looked promising, many of the studies were small, and the results were not conclusive (El-Sakka, 2018).
Other potential benefits of DHEA
There are many other purported benefits of DHEA supplements. Let’s examine these and see which (if any) have scientific backing.
DHEA for obesity and type 2 diabetes
People with obesity may be at higher risk for conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Data suggests that DHEA may be helpful for obesity in animals, but studies in people haven’t demonstrated the same results (Aoki, 2018).
Some small studies suggest that DHEA can help manage type 2 diabetes by decreasing abdominal fat and insulin resistance (Villareal, 2004). However, other data indicates DHEA supplements aren’t effective in reducing body weight or improving insulin sensitivity (Jedrzejuk, 2003).
DHEA for the immune system
Researchers have studied DHEA treatment for a few immune system conditions (autoimmune diseases), but there’s not much evidence that it’s helpful for these.
DHEA did not improve the treatment of lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus), which causes inflammation throughout the body and may damage organs like the heart and kidneys (Crosbie, 2007). DHEA was also ineffective for improving symptoms of a condition called Sjögren syndrome that causes dry eyes and dry mouth (Hartkamp, 2008).
DHEA for depression and other mental health conditions
Some data suggest that DHEA may be helpful for symptoms of depression. It may also reduce depression symptoms in people with other mental health concerns like schizophrenia (Peixoto, 2014). Though there aren’t many studies, the results are promising.
DHEA for physical performance
DHEA is included in the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of prohibited substances, but there’s not much evidence suggesting that it can enhance athletic performance or muscle strength. There are only a few existing studies, and none demonstrated any significant effect on physical performance (Hahner, 2010).
DHEA for skin
One study of women after menopause found that topical DHEA may help boost a protein called collagen in the skin. As you age, collagen in your skin decreases and contributes to skin aging, so DHEA may help reduce the signs of skin aging (El-Alfy, 2010).
DHEA for bones
Low levels of DHEA are sometimes linked to low bone density and osteoporosis, which results in thin, weak bones that may break easily (Leowattana, 2001). DHEA may increase bone mineral density and improve bone strength, but there’s not much evidence supporting its use in osteoporosis treatment (Kirby, 2020).
Currently, in the United States, DHEA is sold as an over-the-counter oral supplement and as a prescription vaginal insert called prasterone (brand names Intrarosa, Diandrone, and Gynodian Depot). A healthcare provider might prescribe prasterone for vaginal atrophy, but there aren’t any specific indications for taking DHEA supplements.
DHEA supplements are sometimes made from chemicals found in wild yam. However, your body isn’t able to convert yams cannot be converted into DHEA, so simply eating yams will not provide you with the same amount of DHEA as supplements do (NIH-b, 2020).
Since FDA supplements are only FDA approved for vaginal atrophy, there is no standard dosage for DHEA oral supplements.
The typical concentration of DHEA inserts for vaginal atrophy (thinning of vaginal tissue) associated with menopause is 0.5% DHEA. A healthcare provider can help decide how often to use them based on your individual needs, response to treatment, and side effects (FDA, 2016).
DHEA side effects and interactions
The most common DHEA side effects are usually mild, like acne, oily skin, hair loss, increased facial hair growth, stomach upset, and irregular menstrual cycles. These side effects usually resolve over time (Rutkowski, 2014).
More severe side effects are less common but may occur during long-term use. DHEA may increase the risk of some cancers (like breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and prostate cancer) and lower the level of HDL (high-density lipoprotein), a type of cholesterol that protects you against heart disease (cardiovascular disease). People at risk for these conditions should not take DHEA supplements (Sirrs, 1999).
Since there’s not enough information about how DHEA acts in pregnant or breastfeeding people, these individuals should not take DHEA supplements.
DHEA supplements may also interact with some medications, including (NIH-a, 2020):
- Diabetes medications—Some people with diabetes use medications like insulin and metformin to help regulate their blood sugar (blood glucose). But DHEA may affect how these medications work, so it may be more difficult to keep your blood sugar under control (Salek, 2002).
- Antidepressants—Some antidepressants interact with DHEA, potentially increasing the risk of severe side effects from these medications.
- Blood thinners—People taking blood thinners like aspirin have blood that clots slowly. DHEA may also slow the blood’s ability to clot, so taking it with blood thinners could increase the risk of bleeding.
Since there’s a higher risk of severe effects when DHEA combines with other drugs, always let your healthcare provider know about all over-the-counter and prescription drugs you are taking before taking DHEA.
Some people claim that DHEA supplements have a variety of health benefits. But there’s not a lot of evidence to support these claims, and there are possible side effects when using them. It’s a good idea to consult a healthcare professional before starting a new supplement, especially if you are taking other medications.
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Dr. Chimene Richa is a board-certified Ophthalmologist and Senior Medical Writer/Reviewer at Ro.