DHEA stands for dehydroepiandrosterone. This steroid occurs naturally in your body, where it’s produced primarily by the adrenal glands. Your body uses DHEA to make some hormones, including estrogen and testosterone. Because of that, it’s sometimes called “the mother hormone.”
Your DHEA levels naturally drop as you age, and this is considered a key marker in determining biological age. DHEA is considered an antioxidant, which means that it has a protective effect on your tissues and reverses damage due to oxidation, which is believed to be a component of aging.
In women, DHEA levels may increase during times of stress. It may also play a role in your immunity.
DHEA supplements are taken for multiple reasons, including:
- treating some symptoms of fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome
- slowing or reversing the aging process
- improving mental function in the elderly
- improving athletic performance (DHEA is banned by many athletic organizations, including the Olympic Committee)
- treating sexual dysfunction
- preventing clogged arteries
- treating infertility
- improving diabetes and metabolic syndrome
- treating several autoimmune diseases, psychological, and neurological conditions, including depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, lupus, Sjogren’s, osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis, and more
However, much of this use is in spite of incomplete or insufficient scientific evidence.
DHEA for Fibromyalgia & Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
We’re steadily accumulating evidence of the potential role of DHEA deficiency and supplementation in people with fibromyalgia (FMS) and chronic fatigue syndrome(CFS or ME/CFS).
A small study published in 2012 suggested that DHEA levels may be low in post-menopausal women with fibromyalgia and that lower levels were linked with reduced pain threshold and tolerance and several measures of illness severity.
However, studies have been inconsistent as to whether FMS involves low DHEA levels.
A 2014 study suggested that DHEA levels are not linked to pain intensity or other signs and symptoms of the condition.
ME/CFS may be tied to decreased levels of DHEA as well, according to a 2009 study that showed low levels of DHEA and several other antioxidants. Other research published the same year also showed low DHEA levels along with and an abnormal ratio between DHEA and the stress hormone cortisol.
Again, though, research is mixed. A 2010 study found no abnormalities in DHEA levels in people with this disease.
Depression rates are high in both FMS and ME/CFS and a 2014 systematic review said DHEA showed promise in treating depression, especially when it’s mild or resistant to other forms of treatment.
The recommended dosage of oral DHEA supplementation varies widely based on what it’s being taken for. For FMS and ME/CFS, it ranges from 50 mg to 500 mg daily. This dosage hasn’t been studied for long-term use.
Be sure to talk to your doctor about what dosage may be appropriate for you. You may also want to check with your pharmacist, as DHEA can have negative interactions with multiple medications, including antidepressants and other drugs that alter serotonin levels or function.
Serotonin syndrome is a possibility.
DHEA may change the way your liver processes drugs, so be sure to ask your doctor and pharmacist about whether this increases risks of problems from your other medications.
The higher the dosage, the higher the likelihood of side effects.
Side Effects and Safety Concerns
DHEA is a steroid, and steroid use can be dangerous. Any DHEA use should be discussed with and monitored by your doctor.
Because DHEA is a component of sex hormones, it has different potential side effects for men and women.
In women, DHEA supplementation may lead to:
- decreased breast size
- deepening voice
- irregular periods
- increased genital size
- increase in body hair
In men, it may lead to:
- increased aggression
- decreased testicle size
- tender and/or enlarged breasts
- urgency in urination
DHEA may cause problems for people with medical conditions that involve hormones.
Other possible side effects include:
- acute respiratory failure
- blocked blood flow to the brain
- bloody urine
- abnormal heart rhythm or palpitation
- high blood pressure
- changes in thyroid or adrenal hormones
- changes in insulin
- chest pain
- symptoms of depression
- eye dryness or pain
- joint and muscle pain
- lack of energy
- mood changes
- nasal congestion
- night sweats
- upset stomach
- weight gain
People with numerous conditions may face special risks when taking DHEA. Oversight by a healthcare provider is essential with this supplement.