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Are DHEA Supplements Bad For You?

Also Known As: Dehydroepiandrosterone supplements



Short answer

DHEA supplementation may offer some health benefits for certain individuals, such as improved bone density, mental health, and immune function. However, it carries risks including hormonal imbalance, increased cancer risk, and interaction with other medications. The side effects can be significant, and the long-term safety is unclear, prompting the need for cautious use and personal health consideration.



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Long answer

Overview of DHEA and its Role in the Body

Dehydroepiandrosterone, commonly known as DHEA, is an endogenous hormone synthesized mainly by the adrenal glands, with minor contributions from the testes, ovaries, and brain. It's often dubbed as the "parent hormone" due to its role as a precursor to more than 50 other hormones in the human body, including the more well-known androgens and estrogens. Understanding DHEA's role is essential before we dive into the world of supplementation and its potential risks and benefits.

DHEA production peaks in an individual's mid-20s to early 30s, following which there is a gradual decline often associated with the aging process. It's estimated that by the age of 70, most people produce about 20% of the DHEA they made in their youth. This decrease has sparked much interest in DHEA supplementation as a means to counteract the effects of aging.

But what exactly does DHEA do in the body?

  • Sex Hormone Synthesis: As a precursor, DHEA is essential for the production of both male and female sex hormones (androgens and estrogens), which play vital roles in reproductive health, muscle growth, bone density, and other metabolic processes.
  • Immune Function: There is evidence suggesting that DHEA may boost immune function. A research study noted improvements in certain immunological markers when subjects with low DHEA levels were given supplements (Jankowski et al., 2016).
  • Brain Function: The hormone has also been implicated in various brain functions, including mood regulation and cognitive processes. Some studies have investigated its potential as a treatment for depression, cognitive decline, and mood swings during menopause (Schmidt et al., 2005).
  • Cardiovascular Health: DHEA may have a protective effect on cardiovascular health, as some research has indicated an inverse relationship between DHEA levels and heart disease. However, this relationship remains complex and not well understood (Liu et al., 2013).
  • Metabolic Effects: Its role in metabolism has been examined, with some research suggesting that it could play a part in energy production and fat distribution. Nonetheless, more research is needed in this area to confirm any significant effects (Weiss et al., 2011).

Whether due to its decrease with age or its diverse roles in the body, DHEA has garnered attention as a potential supplement for improving overall health and mitigating the aging process. However, it's worth proceeding with caution, as the interplay of DHEA in our system is intricate and not fully understood, and its supplementation is not without risks.

Given its importance and multifaceted role within the body, any alterations to normal DHEA levels, whether through supplementation or other interventions, should be approached with a keen eye on both scientific evidence and individual health context.

Potential Benefits of DHEA Supplementation

The world of supplements is rife with exaggerated claims and ambiguities, but when it comes to DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), there is a suite of potential benefits that have been subject to scientific scrutiny. As a precursor to both male and female sex hormones, including testosterone and estrogen, DHEA has been researched for its impact in various health-related areas. Understanding these potential benefits requires a look into the studies that back them.

Firstly, a prominent area of research is DHEA's influence on aging. A study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences suggests that DHEA supplementation might have anti-aging effects due to its role in improving bone density and potentially reducing the risk of osteoporosis, especially in post-menopausal women.

Secondly, its mental health implications are also noteworthy. Some researchers have found that DHEA may help alleviate depressive symptoms in people with conditions such as major depression, as indicated by a trial found in the American Journal of Psychiatry. The mechanics behind this improvement are not yet fully understood, and further research is needed.

Thirdly, DHEA has been examined for its potential to bolster the immune system. A study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society implies a positive link between DHEA supplementation and immune function, suggesting that it may help enhance the body's natural defense mechanisms against disease.

Furthermore, for individuals suffering from adrenal insufficiency, where the adrenal glands don't produce adequate levels of hormones, DHEA supplements may help improve quality of life, mood, and sexuality, as per research published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

DHEA’s role in improving skin health has also been a topic of investigation. Research indicates that due to its involvement in sebum production, it might help enhance skin hydration and decrease facial skin pigmentation, thereby possibly providing an anti-aging effect on skin appearance.

Lastly, there's the aspect of sexual function and libido, with some research, like that within the Urology journal, suggesting that DHEA supplementation may improve libido and sexual function, especially in the population with decreased libido due to existing health conditions or aging. However, these findings are not conclusive, and extensive clinical trials are necessary to solidify such claims.

The array of research surrounding DHEA does indicate several potential benefits. Still, it is crucial to acknowledge that these studies often involve specific populations or have limitations. As with any supplement, it's vital to weigh these potential benefits against possible risks and the needs of the individual considering supplementation.

Side Effects and Risks Associated with DHEA Use

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a hormone that is naturally produced by the adrenal glands. Supplementing with DHEA has gained popularity for claims ranging from anti-aging benefits to improving muscle strength. However, like any supplement, DHEA use comes with a potential for side effects and risks, particularly when taken without the supervision of a healthcare provider.

Common Side Effects: Some users of DHEA supplements report experiencing a range of common, often mild side effects. These can include:

  • Acne or oily skin
  • Hair loss
  • Stomach upset
  • High blood pressure
  • Changes in menstrual cycle
  • Fatigue
  • Nasal congestion

Hormonal Imbalance: Because DHEA is a hormonal precursor to testosterone and estrogen, inappropriate use can disrupt the hormonal balance. This may lead to more serious conditions, such as:

  • Hirsutism in women (growth of hair on the face, chest, or back)
  • Gynecomastia in men (development of breast tissue)
  • An irregular heart rhythm, as highlighted in a case study published in the "Journal of Medical Case Reports"

Increased Risk of Certain Cancers: Evidence suggests that because DHEA influences hormone levels, it might increase the risk of hormone-sensitive cancers, including breast, ovarian, and prostate cancer. A study published in "Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention" suggested that higher DHEA levels could be associated with an increased risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women.

Effects on Mental Health: DHEA's impact extends beyond the physical. Some users have reported changes in mood and mental health, such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Aggression

There is also the potential for DHEA to exacerbate psychiatric conditions, which warrants thorough screening before beginning supplementation.

Drug Interactions: DHEA supplements can interact with various medications and other supplements. They may influence the effectiveness of antipsychotics, HIV medications, and hormone therapies, to name a few. Users taking medications for insulin resistance or liver conditions should also exercise caution, as DHEA might alter the effects of these drugs. Consult with a healthcare professional to understand the full scope of potential drug interactions.

Medical Conditions: Individuals with certain pre-existing conditions should be particularly cautious with DHEA supplementation. Those with liver disease, diabetes, mood disorders, or thyroid problems, as well as women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, may be at greater risk of adverse effects.

It is crucial to approach DHEA supplementation with vigilance and to undergo hormonal testing prior to use. Self-treatment with DHEA supplements without proper medical guidance is not advised and poses the risk of significant side effects and health complications. For those considering DHEA supplementation, a discussion with a healthcare provider is imperative to evaluate the potential benefits against the risks based on individual health status and needs.

DHEA Interaction with Other Medications and Health Conditions

When it comes to understanding the potential risks of using DHEA supplements, it’s crucial to consider their interactions with other medications and underlying health conditions. DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) plays a complex role in the body as it’s a precursor hormone that can convert into both estrogen and testosterone. The intricacies of these hormonal pathways mean that DHEA can have varied effects depending on one’s individual health profile and the medications they are taking.

Interaction with Hormone-Sensitive Conditions:
DHEA may exacerbate hormone-sensitive conditions, like breast cancer, uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, endometriosis, and uterine fibroids. This is because the supplement could potentially increase levels of estrogen and testosterone, which may promote the growth of hormone-sensitive tumors or tissue.

Interference with Psychiatric Medications:
People taking medication for mental health conditions, particularly those affecting mood, should approach DHEA with caution. There have been reports that DHEA can interfere with antipsychotic medications and other treatments for mood disorders, possibly altering their effectiveness.

Impact on Diabetes Medications:
DHEA might influence insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism, which could necessitate adjustments in diabetes medication to prevent blood sugar levels from becoming too low or too high.

Effect on Blood Thinning Medications:
Due to its potential to impact estrogen levels, DHEA may also alter the effectiveness of blood-thinning medications such as warfarin. Patients on these medications must be monitored closely for changes in blood clotting status if they choose to take DHEA supplements.

Interactions with Other Hormone Therapies:
If you're on any form of hormone replacement therapy or using hormonal contraceptives, adding a DHEA supplement could disrupt the carefully calibrated hormone levels and lead to side effects or decreased contraceptive effectiveness.

Given the above considerations, it is apparent that DHEA supplements should not be taken lightly, especially by those with existing health conditions or those taking other medications. Clinical studies reflecting these interactions are limited, something the medical community certainly needs to address. However, a few key pieces of research do shed light on the potential complexities of DHEA supplementation:

  • A study published in the European Journal of Clinical Pharmacology indicated that DHEA might significantly alter the pharmacokinetics of drugs metabolized by certain liver enzymes, which could lead to unexpected side effects or decreased efficacy of medications.
  • Research from the Journal of the American Medical Association found that DHEA supplementation could affect hormone-sensitive lipid and carbohydrate metabolism, which hints at the need for caution in diabetics or those with cholesterol issues.

In summary, if you're considering DHEA supplements, it is paramount to consult with a healthcare provider, especially if you have a pre-existing condition or are taking medication. The potential interactions with other medications and health conditions are too significant to ignore, and self-supplementation without professional guidance can lead to serious health risks.

Long-Term Effects and Safety of DHEA Supplements

When it comes to the long-term effects and safety of DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) supplements, we must navigate through a sea of conflicting evidence and expert opinions. Understanding the implications of prolonged DHEA usage is crucial, given that this naturally occurring hormone impacts various bodily systems.

Firstly, it's important to note that DHEA levels peak in early adulthood and then decline with age. This has led to the popularity of DHEA supplements as a means to combat aging and promote 'hormonal balance.' However, this is where the waters get murky. While there are studies hinting at potential benefits, we cannot ignore the risks associated with long-term supplementation.

Several research studies have explored the effects of DHEA supplementation over extended periods. For example, a study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism reported that long-term DHEA supplementation could improve bone density and skin health in older adults. However, these benefits are not without potential trade-offs.

Extended use of DHEA has been associated with a range of side effects, some of which may have serious hormone-related consequences. These can include:

  • Alterations in cholesterol and heart disease risk factors
  • Hormonal imbalances potentially leading to conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • Increased risk of certain cancers due to DHEA's influence on hormone-sensitive tissues
  • Elevated testosterone levels in women, leading to unwanted symptoms like hirsutism (excessive hair growth)
  • The possibility of exacerbating mood disorders or other psychiatric conditions

Furthermore, due to the variability in DHEA supplement potency and purity, consumers may be at risk of ingesting either too little or too much of the hormone, thus amplifying potential risks.

Endocrinologists and gerontologists often express caution regarding long-term DHEA usage, particularly as definitive, large-scale, long-term clinical studies are markedly scarce. Data on the safety of DHEA supplementation for periods longer than two years are especially limited, leading the medical community to remain skeptical about the routine use of these supplements over the long term.

Lastly, due to the potential for DHEA to act as a precursor to more potent sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone, there is a concern about the imbalance these supplements can create over time. The long-term hormonal consequences can be particularly detrimental in populations such as postmenopausal women or individuals with hormonal disorders.

In conclusion, while short-term DHEA supplementation might provide some benefits for select individuals, the long-term safety and efficacy are far from clear. It's crucial for consumers to consult with healthcare professionals before incorporating DHEA supplements into their regimen, particularly if considering long-term usage. Additionally, monitoring by a physician with regular health evaluations is strongly advised for those who choose to use DHEA supplements over an extended period.

Frequently asked questions

Our bodies naturally produce DHEA, which diminishes with age. Lifestyle factors such as regular exercise, particularly resistance and high-intensity interval training, adequate sleep, stress management, and a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids may help maintain healthy DHEA levels. However, these natural methods cannot significantly reverse the decline due to aging, and their impact varies among individuals.

Although some proponents of DHEA supplementation claim it can aid in weight loss by potentially affecting metabolism and fat distribution, current scientific evidence supporting this effect is inconclusive. It's important to combine any supplementation with a balanced diet and regular exercise for weight management. Always consult a healthcare provider before starting any new supplement for weight loss.

The need for DHEA supplementation should be determined by a healthcare professional, typically through evaluating symptoms and blood tests measuring hormone levels. It is mostly considered in cases of adrenal insufficiency or other health conditions where DHEA is deficient. Self-supplementing without medical advice is not recommended due to potential side effects and health risks.

Athletes considering DHEA for performance enhancement should exercise caution as it is a precursor to testosterone and could potentially lead to positive results on drug tests for performance-enhancing substances. Furthermore, due to the risk of side effects and the lack of conclusive evidence on efficacy, its use is not generally recommended in athletics, and in many sports, it's banned outright.

Ask a question about DHEA Supplements and our team will publish the answer as soon as possible.

Possible short-term side effects

  • acne
  • oily skin
  • hair loss
  • stomach upset
  • high blood pressure
  • changes in menstrual cycle
  • fatigue
  • nasal congestion
  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • insomnia
  • aggression

Possible long-term side effects

  • alterations in cholesterol and heart disease risk factors
  • hormonal imbalances
  • increased risk of hormone-sensitive cancers
  • elevated testosterone levels in women
  • exacerbation of mood disorders


  • improved bone density
  • alleviation of depressive symptoms
  • enhanced immune function
  • better quality of life in adrenal insufficiency
  • enhanced skin hydration
  • improved libido and sexual function

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Written by Joey Conners
Published on: 03-17-2024

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Joey Conners
Published on: 03-17-2024

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