What is it?
DHEA is a hormone that is naturally made by the human body. It can be made in the laboratory from chemicals found in wild yam and soy. However, the human body cannot make DHEA from these chemicals, so simply eating wild yam or soy will not increase DHEA levels. Don’t be misled by wild yam and soy products labeled as “natural DHEA.”
DHEA is used for slowing or reversing aging, improving thinking skills in older people, and slowing the progress of Alzheimer’s disease.
Athletes and other people use DHEA to increase muscle mass, strength, and energy. But DHEA use is banned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
DHEA is also used by men for erectile dysfunction (ED), and by healthy women and women who have low levels of certain hormones to improve well-being and sexuality.
Some people try DHEA to treat systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), weak bones (osteoporosis), multiple sclerosis (MS), low levels of steroid hormones (Addison’s disease), depression, schizophrenia, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), and to slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease. It is also used for preventing heart disease, breast cancer, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.
DHEA is used for weight loss, for decreasing the symptoms of menopause, and for boosting the immune system.
People with HIV sometimes use DHEA to ease depression and fatigue.
Women who have passed menopause sometimes use DHEA inside the vagina for strengthening the walls of the vagina and for increasing bone mineral density.
Like many dietary supplements, DHEA has some quality control problems. Some products labeled to contain DHEA have been found to contain no DHEA at all, while others contained more than the labeled amount.
DHEA is being investigated and may eventually be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a prescription drug for treating systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and improving bone mineral density in women with lupus who are taking steroid drugs for treatment. The FDA is still studying the pharmaceutical company’s application for approval.
How effective is it?
Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database rates effectiveness based on scientific evidence according to the following scale: Effective, Likely Effective, Possibly Effective, Possibly Ineffective, Likely Ineffective, Ineffective, and Insufficient Evidence to Rate.
The effectiveness ratings for DHEA are as follows:
Possibly effective for...
- Schizophrenia. DHEA may be more effective in women than men.
- Improving the appearance of older people’s skin. Taking DHEA by mouth seems to increase skin thickness and moisture, and decrease facial “age spots” in elderly men and women.
- Improving ability to achieve an erection in men with sexual dysfunction. But it doesn’t seem to be helpful if erectile dysfunction is caused by diabetes or nerve disorders.
- Improving symptoms of lupus (SLE). Taking DHEA by mouth along with conventional treatment may help reduce the number of times symptoms flare up and may allow a reduction in the dose of prescription drugs needed. DHEA may also help SLE symptoms such as muscle ache and mouth ulcers. DHEA also seems to strengthen bones in SLE patients being treated with high-dose steroids (corticosteroids).
- Weak bones (osteoporosis). Taking DHEA by mouth daily seems to improve bone mineral density (BMD) in older women and men with osteoporosis or osteopenia (pre-osteoporosis). DHEA may also increase BMD in young women with the eating disorder called anorexia nervosa.
Possibly ineffective for...
- Alzheimer’s disease.
- Improving sexual arousal in healthy women.
Likely ineffective for...
- Improving thinking in healthy older people.
Insufficient evidence to rate effectiveness for...
- Adrenal insufficiency. There is contradictory information about whether taking DHEA can improve feelings of well-being, sexuality, depression, anxiety, and other symptoms in people with this hormone deficiency. Some research suggests that DHEA might improve these symptoms, while other research suggests that DHEA provides no benefit.
- Metabolic syndrome (a cluster of conditions that put people at high risk for heart disease). There is early evidence that DHEA might lower some of the health risks that make overweight men and women more likely to develop metabolic syndrome. The risk factors that DHEA seems to lower are obesity, fat around the waist, and high insulin levels.
- Weight loss. Early evidence suggests that DHEA seems to help overweight older people who are likely to get metabolic syndrome to lose weight. But it’s not known if DHEA helps younger people to lose weight.
- Depression. There is some evidence that DHEA might improve mood and help depression.
- Aging. Taking DHEA does not seem to improve body shape, bone strength, muscle strength, insulin sensitivity, or quality of life in people older than 60 who have low DHEA levels.
- HIV/AIDS. Early studies suggest that taking DHEA may improve HIV patients’ mental health and quality of life. But DHEA doesn’t seem to actually impact the HIV disease process itself.
- Addison’s disease. There is some early evidence that DHEA might improve symptoms of Addison’s disease.
- Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). There is some evidence that DHEA might improve CFS symptoms.
- Menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes. Studies to date show conflicting results.
- Improving growth and maturation in girls with hormone deficiency. There is some evidence that DHEA might help growth and maturation in these girls.
- Physical performance. Some research shows that older adults who take DHEA have improved measures of muscle strength. But other research has found no effect of taking DHEA on muscle strength.
- Heart disease.
- Breast cancer.
- Parkinson’s disease.
- Other conditions.
More evidence is needed to rate DHEA for these uses.
DHEA is a “parent hormone” produced by the adrenal glands near the kidneys and in the liver. In men, DHEA is also secreted by the testes. It is changed in the body to a hormone called androstenedione. Androstenedione is then changed into the major male and female hormones.
DHEA levels seem to go down as people get older. DHEA levels also seem to be lower in people with certain conditions like depression. Some researchers think that replacing DHEA with supplements might prevent some diseases and conditions.
DHEA is POSSIBLY SAFE for most people when used for just a few months. It can cause some side effects including acne, hair loss, stomach upset, and high blood pressure. Some women can have changes in menstrual cycle, facial hair growth, and a deeper voice after taking DHEA.
DHEA is POSSIBLY UNSAFE when used in larger amounts and long-term. Do not use DHEA in doses higher than 50-100 mg a day or for a long period of time. Using higher doses or long-term use of DHEA can increase the chance of side effects.
Special precautions & warnings:
Pregnancy and breast-feeding: DHEA is POSSIBLY UNSAFE when taken by mouth during pregnancy or breast-feeding. It can cause higher than normal levels of a male hormone called androgen. This might be harmful to the baby. Don’t use DHEA if you are pregnant or breast-feeding.
Hormone-sensitive conditions such as breast cancer, uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, endometriosis, or uterine fibroids: DHEA is a hormone that can affect how estrogen works in the body. If you have any condition that might be made worse by exposure to estrogen, don’t use DHEA.
Liver problems: DHEA might make liver problems worse. Don’t use DHEA if you have liver problems.
Diabetes: DHEA can affect how insulin works in the body. If you have diabetes, monitor your blood sugar carefully if you are taking DHEA.
Depression and mood disorders: There is some concern that patients with a history of depression and bipolar disorder might have some mental side effects if they use DHEA. DHEA can cause mania (excitability and impulsiveness), irritability, and sexual inappropriateness in people with mood disorders. If you have a mood disorder, be sure to discuss DHEA with your healthcare provider before you start taking it. Also, pay attention to any changes in how you feel.
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): Taking DHEA might make this condition worse. Don’t use DHEA if you have PCOS.
Cholesterol problems: DHEA might lower “good cholesterol” (high lipoprotein cholesterol, HDL). If your HDL level is already too low, discuss DHEA with your healthcare provider before you start taking it.
Be cautious with this combination.
The body changes DHEA to estrogen in the body. Anastrozole (Arimidex) is used to help lower estrogen levels in the body. Taking DHEA along with anastrozole (Arimidex) might decrease the effectiveness of anastrozole (Arimidex). Do not take DHEA if you are taking anastrozole (Arimidex).
The body changes DHEA to estrogen in the body. Exemestane (Aromasin) is used to help decrease estrogen in the body. Taking DHEA along with exemestane (Aromasin) might decrease the effectiveness of exemestane (Aromasin). Do not take DHEA if you are taking exemestane (Aromasin).
Some types of cancer are affected by hormones in the body. Estrogen-sensitive cancers are cancers that are affected by estrogen levels in the body. Fulvestrant (Faslodex) is used for this type of cancer. DHEA might increase estrogen in the body and decrease the effectiveness of fulvestrant (Faslodex) for treating cancer. Do not take DHEA if you are taking fulvestrant (Faslodex).
Insulin is used to lower blood sugar. Insulin can also lower the amount of DHEA in the body. By lowering DHEA in the body, insulin might lower the effectiveness of DHEA supplements.
Some types of cancer are affected by hormones in the body. Estrogen-sensitive cancers are cancers that are affected by estrogen levels in the body. Letrozole (Femara) is used for this type of cancer. DHEA might increase estrogen in the body and decrease the effectiveness of letrozole (Femara) for treating cancer. Do not take DHEA if you are taking letrozole (Femara).
Medications changed by the liver (Cytochrome P450 3A4 (CYP3A4) substrates)
Some medications are changed and broken down by the liver. DHEA might decrease how quickly the liver breaks down some medications. Taking DHEA along with some medications that are broken down by the liver can increase the effects and side effects of some medications. Before taking DHEA, talk to your healthcare provider if you are taking any medications that are changed by the liver.
Some medications changed by the liver include lovastatin (Mevacor), ketoconazole (Nizoral), itraconazole (Sporanox), fexofenadine (Allegra), triazolam (Halcion), and many others.
Some types of cancer are affected by hormones in the body. Estrogen-sensitive cancers are cancers that are affected by estrogen levels in the body. Tamoxifen (Nolvadex) is used to help treat and prevent these types of cancer. DHEA increases estrogen levels in the body. By increasing estrogen in the body, DHEA might decrease the effectiveness of tamoxifen (Nolvadex). Do not take DHEA if you are taking tamoxifen (Nolvadex).
The body breaks down triazolam (Halcion) to get rid of it. DHEA might decrease how quickly the body breaks down triazolam (Halcion). Taking DHEA along with triazolam (Halcion) might increase the effects and side effects of triazolam (Halcion).
Be watchful with this combination.
Medications for inflammation (Corticosteroids)
The body naturally makes DHEA. Some medications for inflammation might decrease how much DHEA the body makes. Taking some medications for inflammation might decrease the effects of taking DHEA pills.
Some medications for inflammation include dexamethasone (Decadron), hydrocortisone (Cortef), methylprednisolone (Medrol), prednisone (Deltasone), and others.
Soy might decrease the effects of DHEA.
Strict vegetarians have higher levels of DHEA in their blood than non-vegetarians. However, this difference seems to disappear after menopause. Researchers aren't sure how important these findings are.
The following doses have been studied in scientific research:
- In postmenopausal women and in elderly men: Doses of 25-50 mg daily are commonly used.
- For treatment of schizophrenia: Increasing doses of DHEA of 25 mg daily for 2 weeks, 25 mg two times daily for 2 weeks, and 50 mg two times daily for 2 weeks.
- For replacement of hormones when the adrenal glands are not working well (androgen deficiency): 25-50 mg given daily as a single dose.
- For systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE): 200 mg per day along with conventional medical treatment, but doses up to 600 mg per day have been used.
- For improving bone mineral density in people with weak bones (osteoporosis): 50-100 mg per day.
- For erectile dysfunction: 50 mg per day.
3b-Hydroxy-Androst-5-Ene-17-One, 3BetaHydroxy-Androst-5-Ene-17-One, Androstenolone, Dehydroepiandrosterone, Déhydroépiandrostérone, DHEA-S, GL701, Prasterone, Prastérone.
To learn more about how this article was written, please see the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database methodology.methodology (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/methodology.html).
To see all references for the DHEA page, please go to http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/331.html.
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