DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is found naturally in your body. It’s a steroid hormone that is produced in your adrenal gland and brain. DHEA is available in dietary supplements and the medication Prasterone, and proponents advocate for taking DHEA for a variety of health issues that are related to aging and hormone imbalances like adrenal insufficiency.
How Does DHEA Work?
DHEA is converted into the male sex hormones testosterone and estrogen, respectively. By taking DHEA supplements, proponents of DHEA believe you can help support healthy levels of these hormones, protecting our bodies from the effects of hormone level decline that occur with age, and improving imbalances in hormone levels that may cause health problems.
The Claims for DHEA
Here are some of the common health benefit claims of DHEA supplementation:
- Supports healthy skin elasticity, even in older people.
- Supports mental wellness and mental health.
- Supports men's reproductive health.
- Supports bone health and bone mineral density.
- Improves cognitive function and supports regular brain function.
- Improves athletic performance by promoting muscle strength and improving overall body composition.
Those are a lot of alleged benefits! Claims aren’t always true, especially in the supplement world, so let’s review some of the available evidence and see what we can find out about them.
The Evidence on DHEA
Many claims have been made about the efficacy of DHEA in supporting a wide range of body systems, but how well do these stand up to experience? Let’s take a deeper look at the evidence supporting (and not supporting) the benefits of taking DHEA.
Supporting skin health as we age
As our bodies age, our largest organ, the skin, can show the effects. Skin thickness decreases and the epidermal layer dries out. Additionally, spots and discoloration often occur. DHEA has been shown to have positive effects on supporting skin health even with aging effects. A study of 280 men and women from 60 to 79 years old showed improvements in all of these issues during a one-year course of treatment with DHEA.
- Promising. This and other studies show real promise in the use of DHEA to improve age-related skin problems. A daily oral dose of 50 mg of DHEA, as well as the use of topical creams with DHEA, seems like a smart way to help promote anti-aging effects and overall skin health even with age.
Improving bone health
As we age, our bodies produce fewer androgens, which contributes to losses in BMD (bone mass density). The loss of estrogen in aging women is a particular issue.
- Promising. DHEA studies have shown promise for improving the aspects of bone health related to aging and lower androgen levels. A review reported an analysis by the National Institute on Aging which indicated that regular 50 mg oral doses of DHEA showed increases in bone density among the women in the study. This study included both those suffering from osteoporosis and those with no symptoms.
Improving mental wellness and mental health
An increasing argument in the mental health community discusses how low levels of DHEA may be responsible for low mood, particularly in older adults who experience a drop in naturally occurring DHEA levels. Many studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of using DHEA supplements to target the improvement of mental health, including studies by the National Institute of Mental Health.
- Promising. A comprehensive review from 2009 concluded that every controlled study of DHEA use for improving emotional wellness and mental health reported positive effects. While DHEA may be effective for many, it’s important to treat this condition in conjunction with what your health professional prescribes.
Since DHEA affects both testosterone levels and estrogen levels, it’s not surprising that it can have benefits in supporting sexual function and reproductive function.
- Possible. DHEA has been shown to help increase blood flow through blood vessel stimulation. Therefore, some studies report that DHEA may improve the side effects associated with erectile dysfunction.
This is not to be confused with DHEA-sulfate (dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate), a version of DHEA that functions as a sex steroid also found in both women and men; low DHEAS levels also contribute sexual health conditions.
Memory and cognitive function
DHEA is produced in the brain, as well as in the adrenal gland. Lower levels of DHEA have been linked to memory loss and declines in mental function. Since DHEA levels in the body decrease with age, DHEA replacement therapy may help improve cognitive function, including memory function in aging adults. Some studies in rodents have also shown improvements in cognitive function with the use of DHEA.
- Possible. While studies with mice and rats have shown promise, there needs to be more human studies to fully check out the biological effects of DHEA on human cognitive function.
Strength and athletic performance
Since DHEA is a precursor to testosterone, there has been a common conception that it can increase muscle mass and strength. However, DHEA is banned by the NCAA, MLB, and others as a potential PED (performance-enhancing drug).
- Doubtful. A review of numerous studies has shown that taking DHEA supplements does not improve muscle performance or increase muscle strength. This result was consistent with young, middle-aged, and elderly adults.
The Big Picture
There are clearly areas where supplementation with DHEA can provide a positive health outcome. And the numerous studies on DHEA use indicate that low doses of DHEA cause few side effects. In many cases, a reasonable daily amount of a DHEA supplement (and reasonable expectations) seems to be both safe and effective.
How Much DHEA to Take?
DHEA is an active ingredient in prasterone and is readily available as an oral supplement. Here are some guidelines for how much DHEA to take for the conditions we’ve discussed.
- To treat aging skin, a dosage of 50 mg per day has shown positive results. Additionally, daily treatments with a 1% DHEA topical cream may be tried.
- Low doses of DHEA (from 25 to 50 mg a day) helped a number of patients with previous cases of depression stay depression-free for a year.
- For the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis, consider a 50 mg daily dose of a DHEA supplement.
- There has not been enough study on the effect of DHEA on human cognition to allow a dosage recommendation. If you choose to take DHEA for brain health, it’s best to keep the dosage low, below 50 mg per day.
- Taking DHEA is not shown to improve muscle mass and strength. We don’t recommend taking it for that purpose. In fact, since it is banned by several sports organizations, it should be rigorously avoided by athletes.
Precautions and Potential Side Effects of DHEA
DHEA is a hormone, a precursor to testosterone and estrogen, and its use can produce side effects associated with higher levels of these hormones. It’s recommended to consult with a health practitioner before adding DHEA, and any other supplement, into your tourinte. Some of the side effects commonly associated with DHEA in unusually high doses include acne/oily skin, hair growth, weight gain, increase in blood pressure, and irritability.
Additionally, pregnant and breast-feeding women should avoid DHEA. Using DHEA can cause levels of the male hormone androgen to increase, which could be harmful to babies.
DHEA may also cause adverse reactions with some drugs, including antidepressants, anticoagulants, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), plus medications used for the treatment of liver diseases and heart disease. If you’re currently taking prescription drugs, be sure to consult your doctor or health care professional before adding DHEA to your normal routine.
Is DHEA Right For You?
Remember, while DHEA is produced naturally by our bodies, it’s not a natural part of our diet. Taking DHEA should be done with a degree of caution. As with all supplements, consult with your health professional before starting a DHEA regimen, and be sure to stay alert for any side effects.
DHEA supplements offer promise in treating several different ailments and in helping our bodies deal with some of the inevitable effects of aging. DHEA isn’t a miracle drug, but as a part of a balanced, healthy lifestyle, it may provide you with some very tangible and valuable benefits.