DHEA – If you’ve never heard it before, you’d be inclined to think it is one of those fancy acronyms with no real substance. Heck, you’d even be inclined to think it’s a version of the DEA. However, this tiny molecule may play such an important role in your body that once you know about it, you’ll bow your head in shame for not knowing it earlier.
Want to know how important DHEA is? Well, keep reading to find out.
What is DHEA?
Dehydroepiandrosterone, commonly called DHEA, is a steroid hormone produced naturally in the body. It is produced by the adrenal glands, which sit just above your right kidney and produce other hormones like testosterone and estrogen. However, the adrenal is not the only gland that produces this hormone; the gonads, fat tissue, brain, and skin also produce small amounts of DHEA.
The exact effects of DHEA on the body are not clear. However, DHEA is a precursor to the male sex hormone, testosterone and the female sex hormone, estrogen.
DHEA level is at its peak in early adulthood. That is, the body produces more of this hormone when you are young or in your early adulthood stage, and then production slowly decreases as you age.
DHEA levels peak around the time you’re 20 and may drop to less than 20 percent of their peak value over the next 40 to 60 years of your life. Low levels are linked to several conditions, such as depression and sexual dysfunction. However, there are cases where DHEA is produced at low levels in your early years.
While DHEA is produced naturally in the body, many people look for external sources of DHEA in the form of pills. Because of age-related decline in DHEA level, synthetic DHEA is taken for a number of reasons.
Most commonly, synthetic DHEA is used as an anti-aging therapy. It is also used to treat depression and symptoms related to menopause. Many also believe that synthetic DHEA or DHEA supplements can help improve sex drive, replace hair loss and build muscle. In addition, DHEA works as a neurosteroid that helps to increase the excitably of neurons in the human central nervous system. This effect on the nervous system is also believed to help improve athletic functioning. However, many of these uses have not been scientifically proven, and DHEA might have some risks associated with its use.
As a result of the little research to back up the functions of DHEA, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADE) and National Collegiate Athlete Associate (NCAA) included DHEA on their banned substance lists.
DHEA in Men and Women
DHEA hormones in females are produced in the ovaries and the adrenal glands. In men, it is produced in the adrenal gland and the testes. DHEA in women helps in sexual functions and production of estrogen and in men helps in improving erectile dysfunction and increases testosterone levels.
Low DHEA levels in women and men are associated with various symptoms, including;
- Panic attacks
- Sexual dysfunction like low libido
- Heart disease
Possible symptoms of high DHEA levels are:
- excess hair growth
- hair loss
- aggressive behavior
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Breast cancer
- Adrenal gland tumor
- Cushing’s syndrome.
Ranges of DHEA in women are:
Ages 18 to 19: 145 to 395 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL)
Ages 20 to 29: 65 to 380 µg/dL
Ages 30 to 39: 45 to 270 µg/dL
Ages 40 to 49: 32 to 240 µg/dL
Ages 50 to 59: 26 to 200 µg/dL
Ages 60 to 69: 13 to 130 µg/dL
Ages 69 and older: 17 to 90 µg/dL
Ranges of DHEA in men are:
Ages 18 to 19: 108 to 441 µg/dL
Ages 20 to 29: 280 to 640 µg/dL
Ages 30 to 39: 120 to 520 µg/dL
Ages 40 to 49: 95 to 530 µg/dL
Ages 50 to 59: 70 to 310 µg/dL
Ages 60 to 69: 42 to 290 µg/dL
Ages 69 and older: 28 to 175 µg/dL
Increasing DHEA levels in Men and Women
DHEA levels in the body can be increased in three ways;
- Making lifestyle adjustments
- Eating foods rich in DHEA
- The use of DHEA supplementation
Lifestyle adjustments help increase DHEA levels naturally. The most important lifestyle modifications to boost DHEA include;
- Quality Sleep
To produce DHEA hormones naturally in the body, it is important that you get quality sleep. Sleep deprivation leads to the activation of stressors that impair the production of hormones like DHEA and cause the rapid breakdown of available DHEA. Studies show that getting quality sleep helps reduce the production of these stressors, resulting in increased DHEA production.
- Manage stress
Stress results from everyday activities and is often not healthy for the body. Increased stress leads to increased cortisol production, resulting in a reduced level of DHEA in the body. Besides, stress leads to other conditions such as hypertension and migraines. Therefore, reducing stress levels will naturally lead to increased DHEA production in the body.
- Engage in exercise and workouts
Engaging in activities like football, swimming, running, or weight training helps in DHEA production. Physical activity produces testosterone, which by a negative feedback loop leads to DHEA production.
Foods Rich in DHEA
There is a popular opinion on Mexican yam, soy and eggs being acceptable as natural sources of DHEA. In addition, ayurvedic herbs such as Tribulis terrestris and Tongkat Ali are recommended by some practitioners as a source of DHEA. However, there is no scientific evidence to back up the claim that these foods are DHEA-rich and the opinion of DHEA being present in them is regarded as myth.
A non-natural way of boosting DHEA levels in the body is through the use of DHEA supplements commonly made from wild yams or soy. They are manufactured as tablets or capsules to be taken by users.
Like its natural form, the supplements are selectively converted to male or female sex hormones in the body. Excess intake of these supplements may thus lead to hormonal imbalances and side effects like hirsutism or gynecomastia.
There are different DHEA supplements; we have DHEA supplements for anti-aging, DHEA supplements for health conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, low bone density, cervical cancer, Crohn’s disease, infertility, schizophrenia, sexual disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome and others, DHEA supplements for weight loss and DHEA for athletes.
Possible Benefits of DHEA
There are many claims regarding DHEA supplements. However, the evidence about its benefits is inconclusive. Hence, the possible benefits based on available research are:
There have been mixed results regarding the benefit of DHEA on bone health. Some results show that higher blood levels of DHEA are proportional to higher bone mineral density in the body. In contrast, some results show no significant effect of DHEA on men’s bone mineral density. Although the research remains largely inconclusive, many still use DHEA to improve bone density and health.
Research published in the Current Drug Target shows that DHEA may help treat people with depression and may help relieve depressive symptoms in schizophrenic and anorexic patients. Based on research, DHEA supplements may help with depressive symptoms.
- Metabolic syndrome
Metabolic syndrome is a group of symptoms that occur simultaneously and raise your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Increased blood pressure, excessive blood sugar, extra belly fat, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels are components of metabolic syndrome. Some studies show that using DHEA supplements may help relieve symptoms of metabolic syndrome. Early research shows that DHEA may help build up and break down substances in the body. By breaking down cholesterol and triglycerides, DHEA supplementation may help reduce the risk of developing metabolic syndrome.
- Menopausal syndrome
DHEA has become popular among perimenopausal women seeking relief from menopausal symptoms such as reduced sex desire, sagging skin, and dry vagina. According to preliminary research, DHEA supplements function similar to hormone replacement therapy (HRT) by boosting hormone levels like estrogen in postmenopausal women. Low-dose DHEA may thus help women cope with menopausal symptoms and improve their sexual life. However, further research is needed, and whether DHEA truly helps is uncertain.
Side Effects of DHEA
The use of DHEA supplements has not been scientifically established since research results have been conflicting. AS such, using DHEA supplements should only be done under a qualified medical practitioner because they can cause potentially dangerous side effects such as:
- Abdominal pain
- Breast tenderness
- Deepening of the voice in women
- Hair loss
- Irregular or rapid heartbeats
- Irregular menstruation
- Mood disturbance
- Shrinkage of the testicles
- Urinary urgency
- Weight gain around the waist and others
It is important to note that children, pregnant women, and those with a history of heart diseases are not advised to take DHEA supplements.
DHEA supplements are not advisable to be taken with some drugs as they may cause some adverse reactions and can be harmful to the liver and some other parts of the body. Drugs like:
- Anastrozole (Arimidex)
- Anticoagulant and antiplatelet drugs
- Aromasin (exemestane)
- Faslodex (fulvestrant)
- Femara (letrozole)
- Medications changed by the liver
- Nolvadex (tamoxifen)
- Halcion (triazolam)
Effect on Bodybuilding
DHEA is a direct precursor to testosterone. Therefore, many believe it can increase muscle mass and muscle strength and take it for this purpose. However, several studies in men of all ages show that DHEA supplementation has no additional benefit on bodybuilding. In addition, a few studies show that it may improve upper body strength in frail older adults, but not performance.
Overall, the research on the benefit of this supplement on bodybuilding is lacking, and thus, its use is not recommended. Besides, DHEA use is banned, and athletes should not look towards it in their bodybuilding journey.
DHEA is a steroid hormone that serves as a precursor to male and female sex hormones. While there are many claims to its benefits, none have been scientifically proven. Its adverse effects also make it a banned substance. Therefore, DHEA supplements are not to be taken lightly. If you care about increasing your DHEA levels, it is best to stick with natural methods by improving sleep and reducing stress.