Credit: Dr. Grant Tinsley
Many people claim balancing your hormones is the key to looking and feeling better.
While there are many natural ways to balance your hormones, medications or supplements can also alter your hormone levels and provide health benefits.
DHEA is both a natural hormone and popular supplement that can affect the levels of other hormones in your body.
It has been studied for its potential to increase bone density, decrease body fat, improve sexual function and correct some hormonal problems.
What Is DHEA and How Does It Work?
DHEA, or dehydroepiandrosterone, is a hormone that’s produced by your body.
Some of it is converted into the major male and female sex hormones testosterone and estrogen (1).
Its effects can be driven by the actions of testosterone and estrogen after this conversion occurs, as well as by the DHEA molecule itself (2).
Given that DHEA is produced naturally, some wonder why it’s consumed as a supplement. The main reason is that DHEA levels decrease as you age, and this decrease is associated with several diseases.
When you take this hormone as a supplement, its levels in your body increase. Some of it is also converted into testosterone and estrogen (1).
Increased levels of these three hormones produce a variety of effects, which will be reviewed in this article.
Summary: DHEA is a natural hormone that is available as a dietary supplement. Low levels are associated with some diseases, but taking it as a supplement increases its levels in your body.
May Increase Bone Density
What’s more, low DHEA levels are also associated with an increased risk of bone fractures (10).
Because of these associations, several studies have examined whether DHEA can improve bone density in older adults.
It might be necessary to take this supplement for longer periods to experience increased bone density, and this effect may be larger in older women.
Summary: Low levels of DHEA are associated with lower bone density and bone fractures. Supplementing with it over the long term may increase bone density, particularly in older women.
Doesn’t Seem to Increase Muscle Size or Strength
However, the majority of research shows that taking DHEA supplements does not increase muscle mass or muscle performance.
In contrast, a small amount of research has reported that this supplement can improve strength and physical performance in frail, older adults or those who have adrenal glands that don’t function properly (13, 24, 25).
Several studies showed that it did not improve physical performance in older adults, but others reported increased upper and lower body strength (24).
Overall, because a large number of studies show no benefits for muscle size or strength, DHEA is probably not effective in these two regards.
Summary: Although DHEA supplements can increase testosterone levels in the body, they do not typically increase muscle size or strength.
Its Effect on Fat Burning Is Unclear
One study found that DHEA decreased fat mass by about 4% over the course of four months, although this was in patients with adrenal gland problems (28).
While the effects of standard DHEA supplements on fat mass aren’t impressive, a different form of DHEA may be more promising.
This form of the supplement, called 7-Keto DHEA, has been reported to increase metabolic rate in overweight men and women (29).
What’s more, during an eight-week exercise program in overweight adults, body weight and fat mass decreased three times more after taking 7-Keto DHEA supplements, compared to placebo (30).
In this study, individuals taking the supplement lost about 6.4 pounds (2.9 kgs) of body weight and 1.8% body fat. Those in the placebo group only lost 2.2 pounds (1 kg) and 0.6% body fat.
While more research is needed, it’s possible that this form of DHEA could help you lose fat.
Summary: Most research shows that standard DHEA supplements are not typically effective for fat loss. However, a different form of this hormone called 7-Keto DHEA might be more effective in aiding fat loss.
May Play a Role in Fighting Depression
The relationship between DHEA and depression is complex.
However, some individuals with severe depression have lower levels of DHEA than those with milder depression (6).
While the relationship between DHEA levels and depression isn’t entirely clear, researchers have studied whether taking DHEA as a supplement can improve symptoms of depression.
Some research shows that it can aid in treating depression, especially in individuals with mild depression or those who don’t respond to normal treatment (32).
Some researchers even caution against the use of it, as higher levels of DHEA in the body have been associated with increased symptoms of depression in middle-aged women (34).
Overall, more information is needed before DHEA can be recommended for treating depression.
Summary: There may be a relationship between DHEA levels in the body and depression. Taking it to combat depression is not recommended until more information is available.
May Improve Sexual Function, Fertility and Libido
It’s no surprise that a supplement that affects the male and female sex hormones also affects sexual function.
For starters, DHEA supplements may improve the function of the ovaries in women with impaired fertility.
These women underwent IVF before and after DHEA treatment. After treatment, the women produced more eggs and a higher percentage of eggs were fertilized — 67%, versus 39% before treatment.
One study found that women who took DHEA supplements during IVF had a 23% live birth rate, compared to a 4% live birth rate in the control group (37).
Summary: DHEA supplements may improve several aspects of sexual function, including libido and fertility in women. Benefits are primarily seen in those with impaired sexual function.
Can Help Correct Some Adrenal Problems
The adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys, are one of the main producers of DHEA (1).
Some individuals have a condition called adrenal insufficiency, in which the adrenal glands can’t produce normal amounts of hormones.
This condition can produce fatigue, weakness and changes in blood pressure. It can even progress to become life-threatening (43).
In women with adrenal insufficiency, DHEA decreased feelings of anxiety and depression, as well as improved overall well-being and sexual satisfaction (46).
If you suffer from adrenal insufficiency or other adrenal problems, you may want to ask your physician about whether DHEA could help you.
Summary: DHEA is produced naturally by the adrenal glands. Individuals with adrenal gland problems may experience an enhanced quality of life from taking this hormone as a supplement.
Dosage and Side Effects
Regarding time frame, a dose of 50 mg per day has been safely used for one year, and 25 mg per day has safely been used for two years.
Minor side effects have included greasy skin, acne and increased hair growth in the armpits and pubic area (4).
Importantly, DHEA supplements should not be taken by individuals with cancers affected by sex hormones (4).
It’s best to speak with a physician before beginning to take a DHEA supplement.
Summary: A common daily dose is 25–50 mg. This dosage has been safely used for up to two years without severe side effects. However, you should speak with your physician prior to using this supplement.
The Bottom Line
The beneficial effects associated with DHEA may be primarily seen in those with low DHEA levels or certain health conditions.
For young, healthy individuals, taking DHEA is probably not necessary. This hormone is produced naturally in the body, and more of it is not necessarily better.
However, supplementing with DHEA may benefit some individuals, specifically older adults and those with certain adrenal, sexual or fertility problems.
It is recommended that you consult your physician if you are thinking about taking this supplement.