Chances are, you've heard about a steroid called DHEA being used to improve the sex drives of people with erectile dysfunction (ED). The important hormone does much more than just boost libido. Natural DHEA brings health benefits to people of all genders, not just those assigned male at birth.
But be warned: While natural DHEA is vital to health, synthetic DHEA can cause serious side effects and should not be taken, per the Mayo Clinic.
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The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency agrees, writing: "While DHEA is allowed in both medications and supplements, it is considered a prohibited anabolic agent in sport. Athletes should be mindful that DHEA has limited medical purposes, and despite being allowed in dietary supplements, there is no evidence that DHEA supplements are a safe or effective treatment for any disease."
Read on to learn more.
What Is DHEA?
DHEA, short for dehydroepiandrosterone, is a hormone produced naturally in the adrenal glands, which are located on top of each kidney, as described by the Mayo Clinic. The body uses DHEA to make the hormones testosterone and estrogen.
Natural production of DHEA is highest in early adulthood, after which it begins dropping. "DHEA levels peak at about age 25, then go down steadily as you get older," according to Mount Sinai. "By the time people are 70 to 80 years old, their DHEA levels are only 10 to 20 percent those in young adults."
Men naturally have much higher DHEA levels than women, according to older but oft-cited October 2007 research in Experimental Gerontology. Therefore, low DHEA levels affect health and mortality in men more than women. The decline of naturally occurring DHEA is associated with age-related disease processes such as heart disease, bone loss and sexual dysfunction in everyone.
There is also a synthetic version of DHEA available as a tablet, capsule, powder, topical cream and gel.
A Note on Language
Here at LIVESTRONG.com we typically use inclusive language when it comes to sex and gender. For accuracy, we've used the terms for gender used in the primary sources cited throughout this article.
Healthy Sexual FunctionSome Evidence
Erectile dysfunction can damage quality of life. With age, testosterone levels decrease, which negatively affects libido, causing problems with erections. DHEA is a precursor to testosterone, and in its natural form, it enhances erectile function in several ways.
As a sex hormone, natural DHEA helps with sexual desire and function. Low levels of these hormones, called androgens, can cause low sex drive and erectile dysfunction, per the Cleveland Clinic.
However, people who take supplements containing synthetic DHEA may find it helps their sex drive — or not. "With regard to sexual function in males and a potential beneficial effect by DHEA supplementation, findings are mixed, with some studies reporting positive effects on sexual function for males and others reporting no effects for males at all," according to a June 2019 article in the World Journal of Men's Health.
DHEA may also improve vaginal dryness after menopause, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Improved Bone DensitySome Evidence
Osteopenia, or lowered bone density, increases the odds of fracture. If bone density continues to lessen and you start to get fractures, you may be diagnosed with osteoporosis.
In people with osteoporosis, bone fractures often occur in critical places such as the hip and spine and can be debilitating. Recent research supports the finding that endogenous (or naturally occurring) DHEA makes bones stronger.
In a May 2022 Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism pooled analysis, researchers found higher levels of DHEA in the blood were linked with higher bone density in the lumbar spine and lower forearm fracture risk in women. In men, reduced bone density is thought to be caused by age-related androgen loss.
"Studies demonstrate a significant association between DHEA and increased bone mineral density," according to a June 2020 Archives of Osteoporosis review. "Many of the metabolites of DHEA are known to be involved in bone homeostasis, specifically estrogen and testosterone."
More research is needed to determine if synthetic DHEA supplements would have a similar effect.
Better Heart HealthLimited Evidence
"Studies link low DHEA levels with an increase in heart disease," according to Mount Sinai, including a December 2020 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, which linked low DHEA to an increased risk of heart failure. But it's unclear if taking DHEA supplements is safe or reduces heart disease risk.
Preliminary March 2020 research in mice in the Journal of Immunology suggests DHEA supplements may be linked to lower inflammation, and inflammation is a contributor to heart conditions. But more research is needed in humans.
According to Mount Sinai, synthetic DHEA supplements may lower high-density lipoprotein, often referred to as "good cholesterol." If cholesterol is a concern for you, talk to your doctor before starting DHEA supplements.
Body Fat ReductionLimited Evidence
Natural DHEA can increase testosterone levels — which are critical to muscle tissue development — so some people think taking DHEA supplements will help reduce body fat and increase lean body mass.
But research on this benefit have had conflicting results, according to Mount Sinai. "Human studies found that taking DHEA didn't change total body weight," they say. "But it did improve total body fat and LDL cholesterol. More research is needed."
Skin RejuvenationLimited Evidence
DHEA levels decrease with age, and that contributes to the skin signs of aging. "A small study suggested that taking DHEA supplements might improve skin hydration and firmness, and decrease aging spots in elderly adults," according to the Mayo Clinic. "More studies are needed to better understand whether DHEA supplementation can counteract some of the effects of aging."
DHEA is said by some to be effective at improving and preventing many age-related health issues, but many health experts caution against using DHEA supplements.
Have a serious discussion with your doctor before embarking on a synthetic DHEA regimen. Serious side effects may include liver dysfunction, abdominal pain and hypertension.
- Mount Sinai: "Dehydroepiandrosterone"
- Experimental Gerontology: "Sex Differences in the Relationship Between DHEAS and Health"
- Mayo Clinic: "DHEA"
- World Journal of Men's Health: "Testosterone and Dehydroepiandrosterone Treatment in Ageing Men: Are We All Set?"
- U.S. Anti-Doping Agency: "What Should Athletes Know About DHEA?"
- Journal of Immunology: "DHEA Inhibits Leukocyte Recruitment through Regulation of the Integrin Antagonist DEL-1 "
- Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism: "Endogenous DHEAS Is Causally Linked With Lumbar Spine Bone Mineral Density and Forearm Fractures in Women "
- Archives of Osteoporosis: "DHEA In Bone: The Role In Osteoporosis And Fracture Healing"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Androgens"
- Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism: "Plasma Dehydroepiandrosterone Sulfate and Cardiovascular Disease Risk in Older Men and Women"