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Introduction

DHEA, scientifically termed Dehydroepiandrosterone, is a naturally occurring hormone. In fact, it is the second most abundant circulating steroid in humans and serves as a precursor for androgens such as testosterone and estrogen.

Therefore, it can have many effects by itself, or after it is converted into these other types of hormones.

DHEA supplementation is most well-known for its potential effects on preventing diseases of aging such as sarcopenia and osteoporosis. That is why a lot of DHEA supplements are clearly aimed towards the elderly population who may be suffering from symptoms from reduced hormonal levels.

However, athletes are now also looking at DHEA supplementation in an attempt to increase the DHEA storage pool and its downstream metabolites such as testosterone for performance-enhancing effects.

DHEA Health Benefits

May Improve Cardiovascular Health

DHEA has been shown to activate a cytosolic protein that can increase the levels of nitric oxide in the body [1] [2].

Nitric oxide is a molecule that has important functions for vasodilation, meaning it relaxes the inner muscles of the blood vessels and causes them to widen and increase circulation.

Significant increases in nitric oxide seem to occur at ~50mg of DHEA per day in men [3].

Due to this, it has been mentioned that DHEA supplementation may lead to maintenance of blood vessel health and functionality, and may positively impact cardiovascular health.

In addition, lab studies have found that a metabolite of DHEA possesses anti-inflammatory effects by attenuating some pro-inflammatory molecules such as TNF-α and thus helping to avoid periods of chronic inflammation [4].

DHEA has even been suggested to improve cardiovascular health by reducing lipoprotein levels via its conversion to estrogen [16]. However, in humans and animal studies, DHEA supplementation appears to reduce both LDL (“bad”) and HDL (“good”) cholesterol – which are different lipoproteins – and so the overall effect likely remains neutral [5].

Not to mention that scientific reviews have so far not found a clear relationship between DHEA levels and development of cardiovascular disease, despite the potential increase in nitric oxide production [6].

May Increase Hormone Levels

DHEA levels seem to decline in elderly populations and therefore may be a consequence of aging [7].

At the age of 70, DHEA levels are approximately 20% lower that of the average 25 year old [8].

It has therefore been theorized that increasing DHEA levels via supplementation may help with some of the side effects related to aging, such as sarcopenia, osteoporosis, and reduced sexual desire.

However, supplementation with DHEA does not appear to counter common side-effects of aging such as libido loss or bone metabolism, despite effectively restoring DHEA levels in the blood [9].

Based on this, DHEA levels and the symptoms we call ‘aging’ appear to be unrelated.

This stance is backed by many experts who conclude that decreases in circulating levels of DHEA does not necessarily mean it needs to be corrected [10].

This being said, there may be a benefit in elderly populations for improving physical performance, despite only having limited evidence available at this point. So far, 50mg of DHEA prior to exercise in elderly men has shown to increase free testosterone levels and prevent declines in high-intensity training performance [11].

Unsurprisingly, these benefits are not seen in young healthy populations [12] [13], with no improvements in athletic performance or body composition from DHEA supplementation [14].

May Stabilize Cortisol Levels

High levels of cortisol (steroid hormone) are linked to weight gain, high blood pressure, disrupted sleep, poor mood, and chronic fatigue.

DHEA exists in a pseudo-balance with cortisol, as they are two opposing hormones of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal stress axis [16].

Interestingly, the decline of DHEA seen with age is met with a decline in cortisol [17].

The two are said to exist in a balanced ratio, and imbalances in this ratio (high cortisol:DHEA ratio) are often seen in patients with many types of diseases such as depression [18], bipolar disorder [19], chronic fatigue syndrome [20], and to a lesser extent, schizophrenia [21].

Theoretically, DHEA supplementation may work to correct an abnormal ratio of these molecules in instances of hypercortisolemia (high blood cortisol), and reduce the severity of particular symptoms.

More research is needed to assess this relationship further and highlight any significant interactions.

How To Take DHEA?

Supplementation of DHEA appears to be effective in elderly populations when taken in amounts of 25-50mg per day.

For young people to see any effect, higher doses of 200mg are necessary – although there do not appear to be benefits in this population.

Oral and topical (gel/cream) administration both appear to be effective at increasing DHEA levels [22].

DHEA Safety And Side Effects

The recommended doses of DHEA do not raise safety concerns and in most cases do not lead to any side effects [23] [24].

Reported side effects that have been noted (although rare) are:

  • Greasy skin
  • Acne
  • Increased hair growth in the armpits and pubic area

Conclusion

DHEA is a naturally occurring hormone that serves as a precursor for androgens such as testosterone and estrogen.

Current evidence suggests it may be able to increase testosterone production in the elderly and prevent against sarcopenia and osteoporosis, however no hormonal effect is seen in young healthy populations.

Other potential uses may be to improve blood flow and decrease the negative impact of stress hormones.

25-50mg per day seems to be the most effective and safest dose.

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This article has been reviewed and fact-checked by a certified nutritionist, and only uses information from credible academic sources.