Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a hormone that your body naturally produces in the adrenal gland. DHEA helps produce other hormones, including testosterone and estrogen. Natural DHEA levels peak in early adulthood and then slowly fall as you age.
A synthetic version of DHEA is available as a tablet, capsule, powder, topical cream and gel.
People use DHEA as an anti-aging therapy and to improve physical performance. DHEA is also used to treat depression and symptoms of menopause.
What the research says
Research on DHEA for specific conditions includes:
- Aging. In theory, taking DHEA supplements to maintain DHEA levels could slow the aging process, possibly improving well-being, cognitive function and body composition. But so far research hasn't proved this to be true. More studies are needed to better understand whether DHEA supplementation can counteract some of the effects of aging. A small study suggested that taking DHEA supplements might improve skin hydration and firmness, and decrease aging spots in elderly adults.
- Depression. DHEA might be more effective at treating depression than placebo, especially in people with low DHEA levels.
- Osteoporosis. Study findings on the effects of DHEA supplementation in the treatment of osteoporosis are mixed. More research is needed to determine whether taking DHEA supplements improves bone density in older adults with low DHEA.
- Vaginal atrophy. Limited research suggests that DHEA might improve vaginal dryness in postmenopausal women.
Research on the effects of DHEA on muscle strength and physical performance had mixed results, but most studies indicate DHEA supplementation has no effect on muscle strength in younger or older adults. The National Collegiate Athletic Association has banned DHEA use among athletes.
DHEA might eventually prove to have benefits in treating people diagnosed with certain conditions, such as adrenal insufficiency and lupus. However, further studies are needed.
Studies have shown quality control of this supplement to often be low.
While some research suggests that DHEA might be slightly helpful in treating depression and vaginal atrophy, there's little evidence to support anti-aging claims. Also, DHEA use can cause serious side effects. Avoid using this supplement.
Safety and side effects
DHEA is a hormone. Use of this supplement might increase levels of androgen and have a steroid effect. DHEA also might increase the risk of hormone-sensitive cancers, including prostate, breast and ovarian cancers. If you have any form of cancer or are at risk of cancer, don't use DHEA.
Don't use DHEA if you're pregnant or breastfeeding.
Consider avoiding use of DHEA if you have high cholesterol or a condition that affects the supply of blood to the heart (ischemic heart disease). DHEA might reduce high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good," cholesterol levels.
Use of DHEA also might worsen psychiatric disorders and increase the risk of mania in people who have mood disorders.
DHEA also might cause oily skin, acne and unwanted, male-pattern hair growth in women (hirsutism).
Possible interactions include:
- Antipsychotics. Use of DHEA with antipsychotics such as clozapine (Clozaril, Versacloz, others) might reduce the drug's effectiveness.
- Carbamazepine (Tegretol, Carbatrol, others). Use of DHEA with this drug used to treat seizures, nerve pain and bipolar disorder might reduce the drug's effectiveness.
- Estrogen. Don't use DHEA with estrogen. Combining DHEA and estrogen might cause symptoms of excess estrogen, such as nausea, headache and insomnia.
- Lithium. Use of DHEA with lithium might reduce the drug's effectiveness.
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Use of DHEA with this type of antidepressant might cause manic symptoms.
- Testosterone. Don't use DHEA with testosterone. Combining DHEA and testosterone might cause symptoms such as low sperm count and enlarged breasts in men (gynecomastia) and the development of typically male characteristics in women.
- Triazolam (Halcion). Using DHEA with this sedative might increase the effects of this drug, causing excessive sedation and affecting your breathing and heart rate.
- Valproic acid. Use of DHEA with this medication used to treat seizures and bipolar disorder might reduce the drug's effectiveness.
Aug. 10, 2023
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- Pizzorono JE, et al., eds. Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). In: Textbook of Natural Medicine. 5th ed. Elsevier; 2021. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Jan. 23, 2021.
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- 2020-21 NCAA banned substances. The National Collegiate Athletic Association. https://www.ncaa.org/sport-science-institute/topics/2020-21-ncaa-banned-substances. Accessed Jan. 23, 2021.