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DHEA supplement: Uses, benefits, safety and side effects

Many claims have been made about DHEA, a supplement sought after by bodybuilders, postmenopausal women and others, but what is DHEA - and is it safe?

DHEA is an abbreviation for dehydroepiandroseterone, a hormone that is mostly produced by the adrenal glands. The body uses DHEA to make androgen and oestrogen, the male and female sex hormones. DHEA levels normally peak when people reach their twenties and gradually decline - by the time they reach their seventies, DHEA levels decrease to only 10-20% of what they were at their peak.

To make DHEA supplements - sometimes known as pregnenolone - most producers extract a plant sterol known as diosgenin from Mexican wild yams (Dioscorea villosa) and occasionally from soya, which is then converted into DHEA in a laboratory because the human body cannot do so naturally. This also means that eating wild yams or soya products will not increase your levels of DHEA.

DHEA supplements are a type of anabolic steroid. There are many claims made about taking DHEA supplements, including that they can:

What do the scientists know?

Researchers have been looking at how low levels of DHEA in older people could affect certain medical conditions that increase in risk with age, such as osteoporosis, breast cancer, heart disease and memory loss. However, there isn't enough research on DHEA to know if taking supplements could reduce these risks.

Scientists are also studying if DHEA supplements could be used for treating certain medical conditions such as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), multiple sclerosis (MS), Addison's disease, schizophrenia, chronic fatigue syndrome and Parkinson's disease. Other studies have looked at DHEA and its benefits for people with fibromyalgia, ulcerative colitis, heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), HIV/AIDS, vaginal weakness, dementia and anorexia nervosa.

Studies indicate that DHEA supplements could:

  • Increase bone density in older women
  • Improve total body fat in humans
  • Help men with erectile dysfunction (ED) achieve and sustain an erection
  • Improve libido in older women
  • Raise some hormone levels in postmenopausal women (but there are conflicting results as to if this reduces the symptoms of menopause)
  • Improve memory and learning (but other studies found no improvement)
  • Improve the appearance of skin in elderly people
  • Improve insulin resistance
  • Reduce the risk of clogged arteries and improve blood vessel function
  • Improve the quality of life for people with lupus or SLE
  • Help improve mood, fatigue and wellbeing in people with adrenal insufficiency
  • Treat the symptoms of major depression
  • Lower LDL ('bad') cholesterol
  • Improve memory function in men and women with HIV
  • Help people with inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn's disease.

However, more research is necessary to determine if DHEA supplements can help improve or prevent medical conditions, and to establish any long-term risks and benefits.

WebMD Medical Reference

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