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DHEA

Health Benefits, Uses, Side Effects & More

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Updated April 09, 2014

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

What Is DHEA?

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a steroid hormone that's produced naturally by the adrenal glands. The body converts DHEA into male and female sex hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone. DHEA is also available in supplement form.

DHEA supplements are made from a substance called diosgenin, which is found in soy and wild yams. Wild yam cream and supplements are often touted as natural sources of DHEA, but the body can't convert wild yam to DHEA on its own—it must be done in a laboratory.

DHEA supplements were taken off the U.S. market in 1985 because of concerns about false claims regarding their benefits. It became available only by prescription, but was reintroduced as a nutritional supplement after the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act was passed in 1994.

Health Effects of DHEA Supplements:

DHEA levels typically peak by the time people are in their 20s and decline with age, which is why there has been considerable interest in DHEA and its role in aging. What's more, low levels of DHEA have been detected in some people with type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis and kidney disease. Some individuals use DHEA supplements in order to protect against these and other health conditions.

Certain medications may also deplete DHEA, such as corticosteroids, insulin, opiates and danazol.

DHEA is often taken to slow or reverse the aging process, enhance exercise performance, prevent Alzheimer's disease, improve libido, fight fatigue, enhance health in people with HIV/AIDS, soothe menopausal symptoms, treat erectile dysfunction and stimulate the immune system.

Can Taking DHEA Supplements Improve Your Health?

There are very few large, well-designed human studies testing the health effects of DHEA supplements. For example, there is not enough scientific evidence to rate the effectiveness of DHEA supplements in treating adrenal insufficiency, metabolic syndrome, depression, HIV/AIDS, Addison's disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, menopausal symptoms, heart disease, breast cancer, infertility, diabetes, or Parkinson's disease according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In addition, there isn't enough evidence to support the use of DHEA supplements as an anti-aging remedy or weight-loss aid. The NIH also cautions that DHEA supplements appear to be ineffective for boosting libido, enhancing muscle strength in elderly people, protecting against Alzheimer's disease and improving thinking in healthy older people.

However, some research suggests that DHEA supplements may be useful for certain conditions. Here's a look at several key study findings:

1) Osteoporosis

Taking DHEA by mouth daily seems to improve bone mineral density in older women and men with osteoporosis or osteopenia, according to the NIH. Indeed, a 2002 study from the Chinese Medical Journal deemed DHEA safe and effective in the treatment of osteoporosis. After six months of treatment with DHEA, 44 male osteoporosis patients experienced a significant increase in bone mineral density (compared to 42 male osteoporosis patients assigned to a control group for the same time period).

See more on natural remedies for osteopenia or find out about natural approaches to osteopenia.

2) Lupus

Studies indicate that DHEA may enhance mental function and increase bone mass in women with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), an autoimmune disease affecting connective tissue. Many of those studies focused on the use of a form of synthetic DHEA called prasterone (Prestara).

For example, a 2004 study in Arthritis and Rheumatism found that daily intake of prasterone improved or stabilized symptoms among patients with SLE. The study involved 381 women with SLE, each of whom received 200 mg of prasterone or a placebo each day (in addition to their standard treatments) for up to 12 months. Although some members of the prasterone group developed acne and/or hirsutism (excess facial and body hair), most cases were mild and did not require the patients to discontinue their use of prasterone.

For a 2007 report in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, scientists analyzed seven clinical trials (with a total of 842 participants) that tested the use of DHEA in treating SLE. The report's authors concluded that DHEA may have a "modest but clinically significant impact" on health-related quality of life in the short-term for people with SLE.

Learn about other natural remedies for lupus.

3) Schizophrenia

Increasing DHEA levels may help lessen anxiety and depressive symptoms in people with schizophrenia, according to a 2003 study from the Archives of General Psychiatry. The study involved 30 people with schizophrenia, each of whom received either DHEA or a placebo for six weeks (in addition to their regular antipsychotic medication).

DHEA may also help improve mood, enhance well being and boost energy in people with schizophrenia, according to the study's authors. It's important to note that DHEA appeared to be more effective in women than in men.

4) Erectile Dysfunction

For people with sexual dysfunction, DHEA may improve the ability to achieve an erection. However, DHEA does not appear to benefit men whose erectile dysfunction is caused by diabetes or nerve disorders.

Some research shows that decreased DHEA levels may be common among men with erectile dysfunction. In a 2000 study from Urology, for example, researchers examined 442 men (including 309 patients with erectile dysfunction and 133 healthy volunteers) and found that DHEA levels were lower in those with erectile dysfunction until age 60.

Although few trials have tested the effects of DHEA supplementation on patients with erectile dysfunction, there's some evidence that increasing DHEA levels may treat this condition. For instance, in a 1999 study of 40 erectile dysfunction patients, men who received a daily dose of DHEA for six months experienced significant improvement in their ability achieve or maintain an erection sufficient for satisfactory sexual performance. Published in Urology, the study found that the 20 participants who received a placebo for the same time period had no improvement in their erectile dysfunction.

See other remedies for erectile dysfunction.

Read more about side effects and possible drug interactions on the next page.

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