Your body naturally produces the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) in the adrenal gland. In turn, DHEA helps produce other hormones, including testosterone and estrogen. Natural DHEA levels peak in early adulthood and then slowly fall as you age.
A synthetic version of DHEA is available for oral use, as a tablet, and a topical cream.
Often touted as an anti-aging therapy, DHEA is also claimed to ward off chronic illness and improve physical performance.
Research on DHEA for specific conditions includes:
- Aging. In theory, taking DHEA supplements to maintain DHEA levels could slow the aging process, possibly improving well-being, cognitive function and body composition. But research hasn't proved this to be true.
- Depression. DHEA might be more effective at treating depression than placebo.
- Osteoporosis. Research suggests DHEA might improve bone mineral density in elderly people with low DHEA. But improvements in bone density were small compared with those seen after treatment with approved osteoporosis medications.
- Vaginal atrophy. Limited research suggests that DHEA might improve vaginal dryness in postmenopausal women.
Research on the effects of DHEA on well-being and body composition has had mixed results, and most studies indicate no effect of DHEA on cognitive function or on muscle size or strength. The National Collegiate Athletic Association has banned DHEA use among athletes.
DHEA might eventually prove to have benefits in treating people diagnosed with certain conditions, such as adrenal insufficiency and lupus. However, further studies are needed.
Studies have shown quality control of this supplement to often be low.
While some research suggests that DHEA might be slightly helpful in treating osteoporosis, depression and vaginal atrophy, there's little evidence to support anti-aging claims. Also, DHEA use can cause serious side effects. Avoid using this supplement.
Safety and side effects
DHEA is a hormone. Use of this supplement might increase levels of androgen and have a steroid effect. DHEA also might increase the risk of hormone-sensitive cancers, including prostate, breast and ovarian cancers. If you have any form of cancer or are at risk of cancer, don't use DHEA.
Don't use DHEA if you're pregnant or breast-feeding.
Consider avoiding use of DHEA if you have high cholesterol or a condition that affects the supply of blood to the heart (ischemic heart disease). DHEA might reduce high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good," cholesterol levels.
Use of DHEA also might worsen psychiatric disorders and increase the risk of mania in people who have mood disorders.
DHEA also might cause oily skin, acne and unwanted, male-pattern hair growth in women (hirsutism).
Possible interactions include:
- Antipsychotics. Use of DHEA with antipsychotics such as clozapine (Clozaril, Fazaclo) might reduce the drug's effectiveness.
- Carbamazepine (Tegretol, Carbatrol, Epitol). Use of DHEA with this drug used to treat seizures, nerve pain and bipolar disorder might reduce the drug's effectiveness.
- Estrogen. Don't use DHEA with estrogen. Combining DHEA and estrogen might cause symptoms of excess estrogen, such as nausea, headache and insomnia.
- Lithium. Use of DHEA with lithium might reduce the drug's effectiveness.
- Phenothiazines. Use of DHEA with drugs used to treat serious mental and emotional disorders might reduce the effectiveness of the drugs.
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Use of DHEA with this type of antidepressant might cause manic symptoms.
- Testosterone. Don't use DHEA with testosterone. Combining DHEA and testosterone might cause symptoms such as low sperm count (oligospermia), enlarged breasts in men (gynecomastia) and the development of typically male characteristics in women.
- Triazolam (Halcion). Using DHEA with this sedative might cause central nervous system depression, which can affect your breathing rate and heart rate.
- Valproic acid (Depakene). Use of DHEA with this anticonvulsant might reduce the drug's effectiveness.