1. Health
Send to a Friend via Email

Do I Need to Take DHEA?

By

Updated April 11, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

There's been a lot of talk about the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, and how it affects our sexuality, as well as our mental and physical health. Does DHEA provide effective relief for sexual problems, mental health issues, or physical health issues? Or is buying DHEA a waste of your money?

What Is DHEA?

DHEA is a steroid hormone and the precursor of androgens (testosterone) in women. The adrenal glands produce the majority of DHEA present in women while the ovaries contribute a minimal amount of this powerful steroid hormone.

Levels of DHEA naturally decrease as we age. By the time you are 80 years old, the amount of DHEA produced by your body is just five to 10 percent of the amount produced at its highest level during youth and early adulthood.

Many claims have been touted for DHEA. You may have heard that it can:

  • increase your energy level
  • help you to lose weight
  • slow down the aging process
  • boost your immune system
  • reduce your risk of cancer and heart disease
  • improve your memory

However, scientists still do not understand how DHEA works, what its purpose is in the body, and whether DHEA is safe and effective.

Recent Findings

According to a small German study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), researchers found that DHEA improved sexuality and well-being in 24 women diagnosed with adrenal insufficiency.

The double-blind study found that women who took 50 mg of DHEA daily reported significant increases in how often they thought about sex, how interested they were in sexual activity, and their levels of both mental and physical sexual satisfaction.

These women also reported improvement in mental health issues such as obsessive-compulsive traits, depression, anxiety, and other psychological conditions. The most significant improvements were seen four months after treatment began.

Side effects were reported by almost 20 percent of the study participants, and included greasy skin, acne, and increased body hair. In addition, one woman reported hair loss. Reducing the amount of DHEA the woman took ended the hair loss.

Another small study of 22 male and female patients diagnosed with major depression, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, found a 50 percent decrease in depression in nearly half of the participants who took DHEA. The study authors state that larger trials are needed to evaluate the safety of taking DHEA, and that the hormone should only be taken under medical supervision.

So Should I Supplement With DHEA?

Some believe that DHEA is useful for hormone replacement therapy during menopause and suggest taking low doses of this supplement. However, considerable controversy remains regarding supplementation with this powerful hormone, and careful research is strongly advised before you begin taking this supplement.

The major problem with studies on DHEA is that most have included only a small number of participants (as noted in the studies above).

A search for "DHEA" on any search engine results in many pages of DHEA supplement vendors. It's important to note before buying any of these products either online or at your local store that DHEA supplementation has not been approved by the FDA for any use, and because DHEA is classified as a dietary supplement, manufacturers of DHEA have no obligation to prove that their products are either safe or effective.

Before trying any OTC supplements, it's always a good idea to discuss it with your health professional first.

Sources:

Wiebke Arlt, M.D., Frank Callies, M.D., Jan Christoph van Vlijmen, Ines Koehler, Martin Reincke, M.D., Martin Bidlingmaier, M.D., Doris Huebler, M.D., Michael Oettel, Ph.D., Michael Ernst, M.S., Heinrich Maria Schulte, M.D., and Bruno Allolio, M.D.; "Dehydroepiandrosterone Replacement in Women with Adrenal Insufficiency"; NEJM, Volume 341:1013-1020, September 30, 1999, Number 14; http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/341/14/1013; Accessed 06/18/07.

Owen M. Wolkowitz, M.D., Victor I. Reus, M.D., Audrey Keebler, B.A., Nicola Nelson, B.A., Mirit Friedland, B.A., Louann Brizendine, M.D. and Eugene Roberts, Ph.D.; "Double-Blind Treatment of Major Depression With Dehydroepiandrosterone"; Am J Psychiatry 156:646-649, April 1999; http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/156/4/646; Accessed 06/18/2007.

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.

We comply with the HONcode standard
for trustworthy health
information: verify here.