What is DHEA?
The adrenal glands also produce dihydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), the most abundant hormone found in the blood stream. DHEA is a hormone made by your adrenal glands and to a lesser degree by the ovaries and testes. DHEA is changed into DHEA-S in your adrenal glands and liver.
The body uses DHEA as the starting material for producing the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen. However, DHEA supplementation studies have shown that it only increases testosterone in women. The production of DHEA diminishes in most people after age 40. In people aged 70 years, DHEA levels will be approximately 30 percent lower than what they were at age 25. Low blood levels of DHEA have been associated with many degenerative conditions.
Who Can Benefit from Taking DHEA?
Some controversial and non-conclusive studies have shown that people with immune deficiencies and fatigue may benefit from supplementation with this hormone. It is still available over-the-counter in the United States. This may change soon due to a new bill passed by Congress that classifies it as a performance-enhancing steroid (no studies have shown that it has such effect).
One study showed that women with the correct levels of DHEA can convert it into testosterone as their body needs it while men do not benefit to the same degree. You need a blood test to know if you have low DHEA-S since most of the DHEA converts into this sulfated form. Common doses for women are 5 to 30 mg a day, while men tend to benefit from 25-100 mg per day (to bring low levels of DHEA-S to normal)
DHEAS was the only hormone significantly negatively correlated to the prevalence of erectile dysfunction among 17 investigated hormones, including testosterone and estradiol, in the large and long term Massachusetts Male Aging Study . In addition, a study done by Dr Basar et al that included 348 male patients reported that that DHEAS and free testosterone levels were significantly lower in men with sexual dysfunction. However, evidence of positive effects of DHEA supplementation in improving sexual function in men is unconvincing, scanty, and conflicting. Only 4 placebo-controlled studies have been performed to investigate the effect of supplementing DHEA to improve libido in men. Unfortunately, data from these studies did not show any difference in sexual desire in men. The limited effect of DHEA on male sexual function is not surprising. In fact, the specific DHEA contribution to overall circulating testosterone level in men is marginal, if not negligible.
A double blind placebo controlled trial was conducted adding 50 mg DHEA to the standard replacement of low thyroid function (hypopituitary) male and female patients along with growth hormone (GH) showed that DHEA replacement in female patients lead to a 14.6 +/- 20% reduction in the dose of GH for a constant serum IGF-I (P < 0.05). This was maintained for 12 months and there was a significant fall in serum IGF-I two months after withdrawal of DHEA. There was no change in the male group.
Do not use DHEA supplements unless your blood levels of DHEA-S are low. If low, start at a low dose and get your DHEA-S tested again after a month. Men who use DHEA supplements may have problems with higher estrogen levels since this hormone can also metabolize into estradiol. This could result in gynecomastia and water retention. If you start taking DHEA, have your blood levels checked to make sure they are not above normal. There are many claims about DHEA being an anti-aging and an anti-cancer cure, but none of these claims has been substantiated with strong data.
How Do You Know Your DHEA Blood Level?
The standard blood test to evaluate DHEA status is one that measures DHEA sulfate levels (dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate or DHEA-S). The DHEA-S is calculated in micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL) of blood. A DHEA-S blood test may be taken three to six weeks after initiating DHEA to help determine optimal dosing. DHEA testing may save you money if it shows you can take less DHEA to maintain youthful DHEA serum levels.
DHEA and Bodybuilding
DHEA often gets marketed as a “muscle builder” to men. As a muscle building supplement in young healthy men, DHEA is essentially worthless, and high intakes may in fact be counter–productive to gaining muscle as high doses also cause an increase in estrogen and the effects on testosterone are minimal. Studies have been conflicting in this area at best, and most “real world” users report no improvements in strength, muscle mass, etc from using DHEA.
As a supplement that can improve mood, libido, memory, and possibly alter body composition (i.e., increase muscle, improve bone density, and reduce body fat), DHEA appears to be an option to explore for women. Most of the research has been done in DHEA deficient populations, but data – and real world experience- suggests it’s also a benefit to women not medically deficient in this hormone. Although the benefits of this hormone to women comes predominately from its conversion to testosterone, it also appears some of the effects may be due to other mechanisms.