DHEA is often touted as an anti-aging therapy, used to ward off chronic illness and improve physical performance. However, most research doesn't back up these claims. Here's what you need to know about DHEA.
What is DHEA?
Your body naturally produces the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) in the adrenal gland. In turn, DHEA helps produce other hormones, including testosterone and estrogen.
A synthetic version of DHEA is available in pill form. It's sold as a dietary supplement in the United States. Studies have shown quality control of this supplement to often be low.
What does DHEA have to do with aging?
Natural DHEA levels peak in early adulthood and then slowly fall as you age. In theory, taking DHEA supplements to maintain DHEA levels could slow the aging process, possibly improving well-being, cognitive function and body composition. But research hasn't proved this to be true.
Limited research suggests that DHEA might improve vaginal dryness in postmenopausal women and that the supplement might improve bone mineral density in elderly people with low DHEA. But improvements in bone density were small compared with those seen after treatment with approved osteoporosis medications. Research on the effects of DHEA on well-being and body composition has had mixed results, and most studies indicate no effect of DHEA on cognitive function or on muscle size or strength.
DHEA may eventually prove to have benefits in treating people diagnosed with certain conditions, such as adrenal insufficiency and lupus. However, further studies are needed.
What are the side effects of DHEA?
DHEA is a hormone. It might increase levels of androgen and have a steroid effect. The long-term safety of DHEA use hasn't been established. There are concerns that using DHEA as a supplement might increase the risk of hormone-sensitive cancers, including prostate, breast and ovarian cancers. The National Collegiate Athletic Association has banned DHEA use among athletes.
DHEA has been linked to:
- Reduced high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good," cholesterol levels
- Unwanted, male-pattern hair growth in women (hirsutism)
- Mania and heart palpitations
- Oily skin
Supplements such as DHEA can also cause serious adverse effects when mixed with prescription or nonprescription drugs.
What do you tell people who want to try DHEA?
DHEA supplementation doesn't have proven benefits in older adults and might cause adverse side effects.
If you're looking for ways to promote healthy aging, remember that there's no substitute for a healthy lifestyle.