DHEA supplements are getting quite popular these days. And for the right reasons: DHEA supplements has the potential for a wide range of health benefits. As an endocrinologist, I got an in-depth knowledge about DHEA. In this article, I will explain the followings:
- What is DHEA anyway?
- Why DHEA levels go down?
- What are the potential benefits of DHEA supplements, supported by the clinical studies?
- What are the side-effects of DHEA Supplements?
What is DHEA anyway?
DHEA stands for DEHYDROEPIANDROSTERONE. It is produced from cholesterol mainly in the adrenal glands but also by the testis, the ovaries, skin, and brain.
In women before menopause, 50%–75% of estrogens and the majority of androgens are produced from DHEA. After menopause, practically all androgens and estrogens are synthesized from DHEA.
Why do DHEA levels go down?
There is an Age-related decrease of DHEA levels. It is called “adrenopause”. By the age of 70–80 years, levels may be as low as 10%–20% of those encountered in young adults.
Lower concentrations are observed in women compared to men.
Other conditions related to low DHEA levels are:
- acute stress
- severe systemic illness
- anorexia nervosa
- adrenal insufficiency
Potential Benefits of DHEA supplements – supported by the clinical studies
As mentioned above, most of us end up having low DHEA as we age. But there is good news. With DHEA supplements we can boost our DHEA levels back into the healthy range. Numerous scientific studies support the following health benefits of DHEA supplements:
May improve muscle mass
The lifetime risk for a fracture after the age of 50 is 51% for women and 20% for men. One of the major risk factors for falls in the elderly is muscle weakness. Muscle mass decreases with age at a rate of 6% per decade, beginning around age 45.
Studies show a positive effect of DHEA administration on body composition,1,2,3 muscle strength(1,4)and physical performance(4).
May improve bone density
In post-menopausal women, several studies have reported positive effects of DHEA administration on BMD of both the lumbar spine 2,6,9 and the hip.7,8 Positive effects of DHEA administration on BMD have also been reported in men, for both the lumbar spine(7,10) and the hip (7,8,10,11).
May improve depression
Low levels of DHEA have been related to the presence of depressive symptoms (12,13) and DHEA supplementation improved such symptoms (15,16,17) .
May be good for the cardiovascular health
Animal studies have suggested a protective effect of DHEA against atherosclerosis – hardening of the arteries. (18,19,20,21).
Indeed, low DHEAS predicted incident ischemic heart disease in a group of men in a 9-year follow-up study, independently from classic cardiovascular risk factors(22).
Others found a significant inverse relation between DHEAS levels and common carotid artery intima media thickness in men and a direct relation with common carotid artery blood flow in women (23).
Low DHEA levels were also associated with more severe coronary atherosclerosis on coronary angiography in 206 middle-aged patients (24).
Actual scientific data supports a relation between heart failure and low DHEA levels. In men, low DHEA has been associated with higher overall and cardiovascular mortality (25). In the same study, an increase of DHEAS levels by 100 μg/dL was associated with a reduction of all cause and cardiovascular mortality by, respectively, 36% and 48% (25).
May improve sexual function
Low DHEA levels have been related to a higher risk for erectile dysfunction (26, 27,28) . Science shows DHEA supplementation may improve erectile function, desire, sexual interest, sexual activity, arousal, and fantasy (29).
In one study, intra-vaginal administration of DHEA improved sexual arousal, sensation, lubrication, orgasm, and pain during sexual activity (30).
In another study intra-vaginal administration of DHEA was effective for reversing vaginal atrophy in post-menopausal women (31).
The risk for breast cancer does not seem to increase with DHEA (32).
Side-effects of DHEA Supplement
Use of DHEA supplement is generally safe. In women, only minimal adverse effects have been reported such as mild acne, seborrhea, facial hair growth, and ankle swelling. No adverse effects were observed on endometrium – lining of the uterus – or breast. Studies have reported no increase in cancer risk after DHEA treatment.
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