Anti-Aging Hormones

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Caroline Davidge-Pitts, M.B., B.Ch

Nicholas A. Tritos, MD, DSc

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What is DHEA?

DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is a hormone made from cholesterol by your adrenal glands. Your adrenal glands are located on top of your kidneys.

What does DHEA do?

Your body changes DHEA into two important sex hormones: testosterone and estrogen. Testosterone causes male sex characteristics to emerge during puberty in boys, such as growth of facial and pubic hair, enlargement of the penis and testes, and deepening of the voice. In adult males, testosterone is related to sex drive, muscle and bone mass, and sperm production. Estrogen in women is related to breast development, development of eggs from the ovary, menstrual periods, and pregnancy. Estrogen also has other important functions such as bone, brain and cardiovascular health in women. Men have small amounts of estrogen, and women have small amounts of testosterone.

Does DHEA have a role in treating certain health problems?

Some researchers have suggested that DHEA might be used to treat:

  • Adrenal insufficiency (Addison’s disease)
  • Depression
  • Lupus
  • Obesity
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Osteoporosis
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Infertility
  • Problems linked to menopause
  • DHEA also might help induce labor in childbirth.

DHEA has not yet been approved by the FDA as a treatment for these health problems. More research is needed to study the potential benefits and the long-term risks of DHEA.

How is DHEA used inappropriately?

Some people use DHEA hoping it will increase endurance and muscle strength, increase energy, decrease fat, and boost immunity, but these effects have not been proven. Some athletes use DHEA but it is banned by the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the Olympics, and other athletic organizations.

What are the risks of taking DHEA without a doctor’s advice?

In women, DHEA can cause change related to an increase in testosterone: irregular menstrual periods, increased facial hair, increased sweating, smaller breasts, and a deeper voice.

In men, DHEA can also cause change related to an increase in estrogen and/or a drop in testosterone: swelling of the breasts, decrease in the size of the testicles, acne, and hair loss.

Some side effects disappear when DHEA is stopped, but it is not yet clear if other side effects might be permanent. The FDA does not monitor the quality of DHEA supplements, so they may vary widely in terms of how much actual DHEA is in them. As with human growth hormone, DHEA supplements can be dangerous or ineffective.

Edited: August 2018