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What is DHEA?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 19 September 2016
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Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a naturally occurring steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands of both men and women. The function of this hormone in the body is not fully understood, although it is known to be a precursor to estrogen and testosterone, two important sex hormones. As with many other hormones, levels of this hormone change with age, with the body producing significant qualities starting around age seven, and peaking in the mid-20s. As people age, their DHEA levels decline.

Several companies manufacture DHEA as a nutritional supplement, claiming that it can be used in the treatment of Alzheimer's Disease, systemic lupus erythematosus, mood disorders, and aging. This hormone has also be sold historically as a weight loss supplement and muscle building aid. The hormone is also used medically in patients with adrenal insufficiency to help their bodies retain a normal hormone balance.

Because DHEA is in the public domain and it cannot be patented, drug companies are reluctant to perform research on it. As a result, very few rigorous studies have been performed to explore the function of this hormone, and to confirm or refute claims about its usage. This makes it difficult to determine whether or not the touted uses for the nutritional supplement are valid, especially since many claims make the mistake of confusing correlation with causation, assuming that declining levels of DHEA with age must mean that the hormone is involved in the aging process.

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In fact, using DHEA supplements can be dangerous. This hormone has been linked with reproductive cancers and breast cancer, and taking hormone supplements can lead to a hormone imbalance in the body. Patients who are interested in using DHEA should do so under the supervision of an endocrinologist who will regularly check hormone levels to confirm that the dosage is appropriate, in addition to screening the patient for early signs of developing side effects.

When using DHEA as a nutritional supplement, patients should also make sure to inform medical care providers, as the use of any nutritional supplement or medication can vary the approach to diagnosis and treatment. Patients should be able to provide a list of all of the substances they are taking, along with their dosages, and it can help to keep a chart or to note medications down on a medical information card to ensure that this data will be handy when it is needed by a physician.

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John57
Post 5

@julies - I understand your concerns when it comes to using DHEA for menopause symptoms. It can be hard to know what the best approach is, especially when it seems like you read so much conflicting information.

I am more interested in the use of DHEA for the treatment of Alzheimer's Disease. We have a history of this in our family, and would be curious to know if there have been some positive results from using something like this.

If this would possibly prevent Alzheimer's or greatly reduce some of the symptoms, I think it would be worth the risk for me.

julies
Post 4

I have read about DHEA and possible benefits for menopause symptoms, but I don't know how confident I would be in trying this hormone.

I didn't realize there were so few studies done on this, and that would make me nervous. I don't know if it would be worth taking the chance.

It seems like there has been a lot of controversy over hormones and the possible link to cancer. I think I would have to be pretty miserable before I was willing to try something that hasn't been researched very much.

It would make me wonder if the benefits would outweigh the possible risks involved.

bear78
Post 3
My husband and I have been trying to conceive for several months. We haven't really looked into treatment options yet as it's still early. But I have been looking into supplements and treatments that improve fertility and ran into some information about DHEA.

One interesting information I've learned is that DHEA hormones are seen to decrease when women use contraceptive pills. Elevated DHEA levels in women also produces healthier and greater number of eggs apparently. So some experts think that there might be a connection between fertility and DHEA.

I'm just wondering if anyone has had any experiences about this. Anything which points to DHEA improving fertility at all?

ddljohn
Post 2

@turquoise-- I read about this hormone in a women's magazine where they were talking about supplements for women in menopause. Apparently, a study was done where they gave women in menopause with symptoms a low dose of DHEA for a year. The women reported that they were feeling a lot better and their symptoms had lessened in that time period. They also reported that their libido and sexual activity had increased while on DHEA.

If more studies show that DHEA is beneficial for women in menopause, I don't see why women wouldn't be able to take safe doses of DHEA supplements. It has already been shown that DHEA levels goes down as people age, so I highly doubt that

low doses of it will cause dangerously elevated hormone levels and other complications in menopausal women.

I'm in menopause and I'm having a really hard time with it. I have migraines, hot flashes and depression. I wouldn't mind trying DHEA to see if it helps.

turquoise
Post 1

I don't use DHEA but I don't understand how a hormone could be used as a supplement or wight loss aid. As far as I understand, hormones are linked to other hormones in the body and contribute to multiple functions. They're pretty sensitive as well. If the levels of one hormone is imbalanced, it affects other hormones in the body. And it causes various side effects and symptoms in the body.

The only reason that DHEA hormones should be used in my view is if an endocrinologist sees low DHEAS levels in blood tests. That's how I was diagnosed with hypothyroid, when my TSH hormone levels were found to be abnormal. And I'm taking synthetic TSH under doctor control right now.

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