The adrenal gland secretes DHEA, dehydroepiandrosterone, into the body. DHEA is a steroid precursor to sex hormones, androgen and estrogen. DHEA supplementation heightens sexual drive and energy, increases muscle growth and induces weight loss, according to MedlinePlus. However, long-term or excessive DHEA use may produce a multitude of irreversible side effects. Importantly, no long-term human studies on the potential adverse effect of DHEA supplementation exist. Consult a physician before starting a DHEA regime.
DHEA supplementation affects endogenous hormone production. Men experience reduced pituitary function that creates lower sperm counts. A 2007 report in the “Society of Reproductive Medicine” indicated that some men might never regain full pituitary function after taking DHEA supplementation while others will recovery after three to six months. A 2011 report in “Cell Biology International” suggests that women may develop polycystic ovary syndrome, PCOS, after only 15 days of DHEA supplementation. PCOS reduces the frequency of menses and ovulation, creating a hormonal environment similar to menopausal women.
DHEA is a powerful hormone that has the potential to interact with many players in the body. Moreover, the “Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease” reported in April 2011 that both men and women experiencing mild to moderate forms of Alzheimer's actually have elevated levels of DHEA in the brain even if DHEA blood levels are low. High levels of DHEA in the brain directly correlate with cognitive impairment. The impact of DHEA supplementation on cognitive ability requires additional long-term study, however, any form or degree of Alzheimer’s symptoms experienced are irreversible.
Breast, ovarian and prostate cancers are only a few of the notable hormone-dependent cancers that may result from large DHEA doses or chronic use, according to MedlinePlus. Controlled human studies are impossible to complete. However, in May 1998, the “Journal of the National Cancer Institute” published a five-year clinical study on the impact of post-menopausal women taking hormone supplements that included DHEA. Women taking hormone replacement therapy were significantly more likely to develop breast cancer than those taking the placebo. Risk of developing cancer appears to increase with age and women are more likely than men to develop hormone-dependent cancers.
High levels of cortisol, a stress-induced hormone, cause Cushing’s syndrome. A 2003 article in “Endocrine Journal” explains the impact of DHEA on Cushing’s syndrome. Chronic cortisol exposure produces obesity, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, diabetes and kidney stones. Your pituitary and adrenal glands produce cortisol at a similar level as DHEA; however, high cortisol levels lower your overall DHEA level. Unfortunately, your body will adapt to the elevated cortisol levels by producing more DHEA and create a feedback cycle that produces more cortisol. Thus, DHEA supplementation encourages this feedback by inducing your body to produce more cortisol. You must determine the origin of high cortisol levels to stop this feedback circuit. Chronic stress and pituitary or adrenal tumors are possible causes. Talk to your doctor before starting any DHEA supplement.
- MedlinePlus: DHEA
- “Society of Reproductive Medicine”; Medications That Impair Male Fertility; M. Sigman; May 2007
- "Cell Biology International"; Altered Expression of Bcl-2 and Bax in Follicles Within Dehydroepiandrosterone-Induced Polycystic Ovaries in Rats; D. Bas et al.; May 2011
- “Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease”; A Lead Study on Oxidative Stress-Mediated Dehydroepiandrosterone Formation in Serum: The Biochemical Basis for a Diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease; G. Rammouz et al.; April 2011
- “Journal of the National Cancer Institute”; Plasma Sex Steroid Hormone Levels and Risk of Breast Cancer in Postmenopausal Women; S. E. Hankinson et al.; February 1998