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Irreversible Side Effects of DHEA

author image Elizabeth Thatcher
Based outside Boston, Elizabeth Thatcher began writing health-related articles in 2007. Her work has appeared in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Science," "Nature Genetics," "Journal of Cell Biology," "Developmental Dynamics," "RNA Biology" and "BMC Genomics." Thatcher earned a Bachelor of Science in biomedical engineering from Mercer University before starting medical research and receiving her doctorate in molecular biology from Vanderbilt University.
Irreversible Side Effects of DHEA
DHEA supplements increase testosterone and estrogen levels in both men and women. Photo Credit: JackF/iStock/Getty Images

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.

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Long-term DHEA use lowers sperm count and egg production.
Long-term DHEA use lowers sperm count and egg production.

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.

Alzheimer’s Symptoms

High DHEA levels correlate with more progressive Alzheimer's symptoms.
High DHEA levels correlate with more progressive Alzheimer's symptoms.

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.


DHEA supplements increase your chance of hormone-dependent cancers.
DHEA supplements increase your chance of hormone-dependent cancers.

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.

Cushing's Syndrome

Exogenous DHEA can produce higher cortisol levels that induce abdominal fat storage.
Exogenous DHEA can produce higher cortisol levels that induce abdominal fat storage.

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.

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