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What Is DHEA? Research, Benefits, and Hazards

An image of a blue green shield with virus behind itPeople often use DHEA as a supplement to encourage weight loss, build muscle, improve their sex drive, and fight aging. While DHEA has many health benefits, however, it does not necessarily provide the benefits many people use it for. Furthermore, taking this supplement also has some risks attached. This leads to the question: what is DHEA, and what are its real health benefits?

What Is DHEA?

Before looking at the real health benefits of DHEA, we first need to know: What is DHEA?

DHEA, or dehydroepiandrosterone, is a precursor hormone produced in your adrenal glands. These glands, situated just above your kidneys, are one of the first responders in times of stress. They produce the stress hormones needed for the fight or flight stress response: cortisol and adrenaline.

DHEA is a precursor hormone to testosterone and estrogen, the male and female sex hormones. Your body’s natural ability to make these hormones declines with age. This is one of the reasons many people feel that DHEA supplementation may be a good thing and may slow down the aging process. They also feel it may help address health issues commonly associated with hormone imbalances.

Among the many reasons people supplement with this hormone is a belief that it will:

  • Improve bone mass and build up muscle strength
  • Fight fatigue
  • Provide adrenal gland support
  • Slow down the aging process
  • Have a positive effect on mood and memory

Likewise, many people with heart disease, kidney issues, diabetes, osteoporosis, and breast cancer tend to have lower DHEA levels. However, that does not necessarily mean increasing DHEA will help these issues.

DHEA Supplements

DHEA supplements are commonly synthetic forms of the hormone made from diosgenin, a plant extract found in wild yams and soy. However, many companies manufacturing DHEA market their product as natural. This is an important distinction to make. A synthetic hormone derived from natural sources is not the same as a natural hormone.

What Is DHEA Used For?

There are many answers to: "What is DHEA used for?" Most have to do with managing various health conditions. Many have to do with adrenal disorders, which may be because is DHEA appears to be efficient in providing adrenal support. People with the following health issues often use a DHEA supplement:

  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Symptoms associated with menopause
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Erectile dysfunction

People may also use DHEA to help with weight loss, slow down aging, provide immune system support, and increase libido and sports performance. Many people also use DHEA in the belief it will build muscle mass.

Research-Supported DHEA Health Benefits

Although much research has so far been conducted on DHEA’s health benefits, much of it is still inconclusive. It does, however, show promising results concerning certain health issues.

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis, a bone disease, results in your bones becoming more porous with time. This results in bones that break easily from a fall. One of the main causes of osteoporosis is hormone imbalance. This includes excess cortisol production, lower testosterone levels in men, and an estrogen deficiency in women. Other contributing factors may include, amongst others, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, kidney disease, and the use of certain medications.

Research results on the effect of DHEA on osteoporosis are mixed. One study, for example, saw researchers measuring the bone density of healthy individuals. The results showed that people with a higher bone mineral density had higher levels of DHEA in their blood.

Another study found that while a DHEA supplement could improve bone density levels in female participants, it did not do much to promote bone health in males.

About 10 million Americans suffer from osteoporosis while another 44 million suffer from low bone density. Furthermore, one out of every two women will have an osteoporosis incident, and one out of every five men. Also, about 80% of osteoporosis sufferers are women.

Studies thus need to start focusing on whether DHEA supplements may improve bone density in older adults with lower DHEA levels. As mentioned, your DHEA levels go down as you age.

Depression

An image of a woman eating a burgerResearchers found that, when given a DHEA supplement, many people suffering from depression showed a marked improvement. The same was true for people suffering from anorexia nervosa and schizophrenia.

Several studies showed that people with certain mood disorders like depression had lower serum DHEA levels.

However, caution is needed when considering this hormone for any mental disorder. This is because research also indicates that using DHEA when you have bipolar disorder can lead to mania and psychoses, amongst other negative reactions.

Aging

We tend to equate the aging process with wrinkly skin and a loss of cognitive function. Wrinkles may result from skin thinning due to the aging process.

Although research is limited on the topic, it does show that using DHEA in a topical application may benefit some people. The research indicates that it may brighten skin and counteract thinning skin. It may also help get rid of age spots.

And what is DHEA’s benefit for cognitive decline?

Cognitive decline is associated with a decrease in DHEA levels. As you age, these levels get steadily lower. In older people, a DHEA supplement could help slow down the advance of cognitive impairment by exerting neuroprotective actions against certain toxins in your brain. Research in this regard is still ongoing, however.

Vaginal Atrophy

Vaginal atrophy, i.e., vaginal dryness, is common in postmenopausal women. In other words, while a woman may be perfectly willing and able to have sex, it could become quite uncomfortable. A woman could also develop urinary symptoms.

Vaginal atrophy is the result of lower estrogen levels, where the vaginal walls become thinner, dryer, and inflamed. Some literature suggests that a DHEA supplement may benefit these postmenopausal women because it may help to balance estrogen levels in your blood.

Other Possible Benefits

Although not yet conclusive, preliminary research shows that a DHEA supplement may benefit those with heart disease, fertility issues, rheumatoid arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease, to name a few.

DHEA for Weight-Loss and Muscle-Building?

When it comes to weight loss and muscle-building properties, the jury is still out. However, research thus far has not supported popular claims.

Preliminary studies show that, although DHEA is widely promoted for increasing metabolism and helping to reduce weight, no such effects have yet been shown.

Also, although DHEA is sometimes used by athletes for improved muscle strength and endurance, and certain sports associations have even banned its use, studies show its beneficial effects in this regard are untrue.

In addition, you run certain risks when taking a DHEA supplement, especially if you do not need it for a specific condition.

DHEA for Stress, Adrenal Fatigue, and Hormone Imbalance

An image of a woman experiencing fatigueStress is the main cause of adrenal fatigue. Constant stress results in constant demand for higher cortisol production. It is a natural result of your body’s NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) stress response. Unfortunately, this constant higher demand for cortisol has numerous effects on your body’s production of other hormones that, in turn, could have a devastating effect on your body’s function. Thyroid, fertility, and heart issues could result, for example.

Unfortunately, adrenal fatigue and the higher cortisol demand results in your adrenals' making less of DHEA, which is a precursor to your sex hormones. So, while the natural decline of DHEA is normal with age, those with adrenal fatigue may see a marked decline in its production resulting from stress. In fact, one of the tests to determine adrenal function looks at your DHEA levels.

So, in a nutshell, chronic stress, which may result in increased cortisol production and adrenal fatigue, may also cause lower DHEA levels and thus hormone imbalance. Many of the symptoms associated with adrenal fatigue also point to lower DHEA levels.

Taking into consideration lower DHEA levels is natural in the elderly, a small-dosage supplement may help to balance out some of the symptoms associated with hormone imbalance. DHEA also balances the effects of cortisol, including on memory loss. However, you should be wary of taking DHEA for any reason without first consulting your primary healthcare professional. A DHEA supplement may have side effects that cause its own set of problems.

What Are DHEA’s Possible Side Effects?

The problem with DHEA is that the higher the dosage, the greater your risk of side effects. Possible side effects include the following:

  • High blood pressure
  • Problems with your liver
  • Cholesterol changes
  • Stunting of growth, particularly in children
  • Mood swings and various psychological issues
  • An increase in aggressive behavior

Women are particularly at risk of developing side effects when taking DHEA.

Possible Dangers of DHEA Supplementation In Women

A DHEA supplement could increase both your estrogen and testosterone levels. Side effects women could experience include:

  • Facial hair growth
  • Hair loss
  • Changes in voice pitch

Possible Dangers of DHEA Supplementation In Men

Men could experience various problems due to an increase in estrogen levels when taking a DHEA supplement. These include, amongst others:

  • A reduction in sperm production
  • Testicle shrinkage
  • Enlarged breasts

Other Considerations

Many people use a DHEA supplement in the hope it will help them deal with certain serious medical issues. However, this can increase your odds for serious interactions and reactions. This is why it's important to consult with a qualified healthcare specialist.

DHEA could also interact with medications you may be using. This hormone could also cause changes in your other hormones such as testosterone and estrogen. Thus, the hormone changes initiated by a DHEA supplement could increase your risk of developing certain hormone-sensitive cancers. These include, amongst others, ovarian, breast, and prostate cancer.

Also, DHEA has risks for those with high cholesterol or heart disease. A DHEA supplement could reduce your levels of good cholesterol.

DHEA may also worsen certain psychiatric disorders, especially in those who are bipolar.

The supplement has also been shown to increase your risk of oily skin and the development of acne.

So, in a nutshell, when considering a DHEA supplement, please first talk to your healthcare practitioner. They are best able to determine its suitability as well as the dosage required. Please do not just start using it out of desperation. Other alternatives exist.

In Conclusion

While a DHEA supplement may benefit certain individuals, it is not a supplement that you should just go out and purchase. The possible risks (including causing hormone imbalances and hormone-related cancers) outweigh the possible benefits for many.

If you are considering using a DHEA supplement, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Research indicates DHEA may be of assistance in helping you manage certain health issues like depression, osteoporosis, and vaginal atrophy.
  • Research has not so far supported DHEA for weight loss or muscle-building.
  • Using DHEA has certain risks involved, so make sure you are aware of them.
  • Consult your primary healthcare practitioner if considering a DHEA supplement to determine its suitability and dosage.

If you have any questions or need assistance determining if DHEA could help you, the team at Dr. Lam Coaching can help. We offer a free** no-obligation phone consultation at +1-6260571-1234 where we will privately discuss the matter with you. You can also send us a question through our Ask The Doctor system by clicking here.

© Copyright 2012-2021 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam’s Key Question

What is DHEA? It is a pre-hormone from which other hormones are made in the body. As for adrenal fatigue, it could provide some adrenal support. But you should do this only under the advisement of your healthcare provider. DHEA also has serious hormonal side effects that can include increased cancer risk.

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