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DHEA, or dehydroepiandrosterone, is a hormone naturally produced by the adrenal glands. This vital molecule plays a variety of physiological roles, not all of which are well understood. What is known is that the body uses it to make estrogen and testosterone, the primary female and male sex hormones.
When you’re in your 20s, your levels are at their peak, but start to decline as a normal part of the aging process. By the time you reach your 70s, your body may produce only 10 percent of your youthful levels—and that’s important. Research suggests that diminished DHEA impacts mood, cognition, and sexual health, and in one study, low DHEA was linked with higher risk of cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality. It may not be surprising, then, that restoring optimal levels can benefit a variety of conditions. Here’s what the science shows:
Supplementing with DHEA can offset sexual problems associated with reduced hormones. In some research, it increased desire, arousal, and satisfaction in postmenopausal women. It may also enhance libido and performance in men, and improve erectile dysfunction.
Several studies link low DHEA with decreased bone density and a higher likelihood of fractures, and some research shows that taking DHEA supplements can boost bone density in postmenopausal women. Other studies suggest that it can increase bone mineral density in younger women with eating disorders.
By impacting the hormonal dips associated with menopause, supplemental DHEA can soothe hot flashes, balance mood, and ease other symptoms. DHEA has also been shown to improve vaginal atrophy—thinning and dryness of the vaginal walls—which relieves painful intercourse and increases sexual satisfaction.
Mood and stress
Studies suggest that people with depression have lower levels of DHEA, and some research shows that supplemental DHEA may benefit people with depression that doesn’t respond to conventional treatments.
In studies, supplementing with DHEA can ease inflammation and support quality of life for people with lupus, Crohn’s disease, and other chronic inflammatory conditions.
Higher levels of DHEA are linked with better concentration, memory, and executive skills, and some research suggests that supplementing with the hormone may protect the brain from age-related cognitive decline.
In people with adrenal insufficiency, a condition in which the adrenal glands can’t produce normal amounts of hormones, DHEA can ease anxiety and depression, improve sexual function, and increase quality of life.
7-Keto DHEA, a metabolite that doesn’t impact hormone levels, may boost metabolism, enhance thyroid hormone production, and encourage weight loss. In some studies, 7-Keto DHEA supplements significantly decreased body weight and fat mass in overweight adults.
DHEA is also thought to support immunity by improving the activity and effectiveness of immune cells. Some research also suggests that DHEA may inhibit the replication of certain kinds of viruses.
If you’re over 50, or have symptoms such as low libido, brain fog, dizziness, or low mood, you could be lacking in DHEA. Be aware, however, that excessive amounts of the hormone have been linked with excess body and facial hair, menstrual irregularities, and certain cancers and other conditions. A simple blood test can measure your levels. If yours are suboptimal, supplements may help. You’ll find both DHEA and 7-Keto DHEA in capsules and tablets, in a variety of dosages. Because the 7-Keto metabolite isn’t converted to androgens and estrogens, it’s thought to be a safer alternative.
While a number of studies support its safe use, supplemental hormones aren’t for everyone. If you’re on hormone replacement therapy, or if you have liver disease, heart disease, diabetes, polycystic ovary syndrome, or hormone-related cancer, you shouldn’t take DHEA. If you have any serious health condition, or are on antidepressants or other prescription medications, talk to your doctor before beginning any new supplement regimen.