DHEA is a hormone (dehydroepiandrosterone) that's produced by the body — and one that's touted as a vitality magic bullet. Athletes think it may help their performance. Since it naturally declines as you get older, do DHEA supplements make sense?
The Mayo Clinic explains that DHEA is integral to the production of both male and female sex hormones. And the Endocrine Society characterizes DHEA as the body's highest circulating steroid. Having it in good supply means that healthy testosterone levels are supported, maintaining sex drive and muscle strength, and that estrogen levels are in balance, maintaining bone strength and brain function.
That said, both sources note that DHEA production peaks in early adulthood, before it begins to taper off with age.
Its key role has led to suggestions that reversing the production decline — perhaps by consuming foods rich in DHEA — might help stave off age-related declines in both mental and physical prowess. The problem with that? "There are no food sources of DHEA," says Lona Sandon, PhD, RDN, program director and associate professor in the department of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
Claims to Fame
A variety of claims have been floated for synthetic DHEA supplements, the Endocrine Society says. For instance, advocates say that taking such supplements can boost energy, muscle mass, strength and immunity, while also promoting fat loss. And, the society notes, supplement advocates also have a long list of illnesses and conditions that they say DHEA can purportedly help to treat: Alzheimer's, osteoporosis, infertility, depression and Lupus, among others.
But the Endocrine Society says there's no scientific proof that such supplements are of any measurable benefit.
"A lot of research has been done on DHEA for a lot of different conditions," Sandon says. "There is some research evidence to suggest that it may help decrease visceral fat," she adds, referring to the fat around the middle. But that benefit, if it turns out to be real, would be "a slow burn," she says, and would be unlikely to produce any kind of dramatic fat loss effect.
On the other hand, the U.S. National Library of Medicine notes that DHEA is likely effective as a topical cream to combat thinning of the vaginal wall and possibly effective for aging skin, depression and fertility. In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Intrarosa, a vaginally inserted medication for postmenopausal women experiencing pain with sex. The active ingredient, prasterone, is a synthetic form of DHEA.
Warnings and Risks
"Little of the research is very convincing that taking a DHEA supplement is worth the money," Sandon says. What's more, "little is known about long-term use," she adds.
Those warnings are seconded by Connie Diekman, RD, MEd, a food and nutrition consultant with professional ties to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Washington University in St. Louis.
"The reason why some people take DHEA supplements is the hope of restoring vitality, restoring muscle mass or fighting off fatigue or muscle fatigue," Diekman says. "But the problem is that little evidence exists to support any of those benefits, and because DHEA is a steroid hormone, the potential for harm is real."
Those harms, Diekman says, may include "changes in breasts in men, hair growth in women, suppressed growth if taken at a young age and increased blood pressure," among others.
Mayo Clinic adds that DHEA supplements may also up the risk for certain cancers and prove problematic for people struggling with mood disorders, high cholesterol or the supply of blood to the heart, a condition known as ischemic heart disease.
Concern about such side effects, Diekman says, is further evidenced by the fact that DHEA supplements are considered a banned substance by the National Football League, Major League Baseball and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
But if all of that is not enough to ward you away from DHEA, both Sandon and Mayo add that such supplements may also have negative interactions with a wide range of critical prescription drugs, including antipsychotic medications, estrogen and testosterone supplements, anti-depressants and seizure and nerve pain meds.
"Buyer beware," Sandon cautions.
- Lona Sandon, PhD, RDN, LD, program director, associate professor, Department of Clinical Nutrition, School of Health Professions, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas
- Connie Diekman, MEd, RD, food and nutrition consultant, former president, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; former director, university nutrition, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri; author, Everything Mediterranean Diet Book
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "DHEA"
- Mayo Clinic: "DHEA"
- Endocrine Society: "Hormone Health Network: Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)"
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "FDA Approves Intrarosa for Postmenopausal Women Experiencing Pain During Sex"