Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is an endogenous steroid hormone that many people consider to be the modern-day Fountain of Youth. It’s widely marketed as an alternative means of perking up a lagging libido, building muscle, and even reversing the effects of aging. DHEA is produced by human adrenal glands and is secreted in the testes in men. It can be converted into the primary sex hormones—testosterone and estrogen.1
Scientists don’t yet know everything about how DHEA works in the body, but it’s clear that DHEA levels peak when we’re in our 20s and then go into a steady decline.
DHEA quickly became a controversial research topic when it was discovered in the 1930s.1 Scientists felt certain they had stumbled upon the perfect anti-aging compound. Unfortunately, regulatory agencies saw the potential for abuse, and the FDA banned the sale of DHEA supplements in 1985. Although this ban was subsequently lifted in 1994, many sports organizations — including the National Football League, National Basketball Association and National Collegiate Athletic Association — still forbid the use of DHEA supplements.2
In spite of DHEA’s potential, there are very few human trials documented before the 1990s, and none large enough to yield statistical significance.2 In addition, there are no studies to date on the long-term effects of DHEA.2 But as a precursor to the dominant sex hormones, DHEA can cause higher-than-normal levels of androgens and estrogens in the body, thus potentially increasing the risk of hormone-sensitive cancers, such as prostate, ovarian and breast cancers.
Initial research on DHEA supplementation (DHEA-S) in schizophrenia patients shows some benefits in the management of anxiety and depressive symptoms. In a randomized, double-blind study investigating the effects of DHEA administration on medication-induced extrapyramidal symptoms (EPS) in schizophrenics, DHEA-S appeared to have a significant effect on EPS with marked improvement in Parkinsonian symptoms.3
Collective research has suggested that DHEA-S may have adverse cognitive effects in postmenopausal women. In an analysis of 24-hour measurements of endogenous DHEA and DHEA-S, investigators from the Department of Neurology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found an increase in negative associations between DHEA-S levels and cognition, suggesting a correlation between exogenous DHEA and impaired cognition.4
A recent review assessing the benefit of DHEA-S on muscle strength and physical functioning in adults older than age 50 years, was inconclusive.5 Several studies examined varying measures of muscle strength — handgrip, chest press, leg press, knee extension and flexion — and showed no substantive differences between the DHEA-S cohort and controls for any endpoint.5
DHEA and circulating sex hormones (endogenous and exogenous) have also been linked to a decreased risk of heart disease. In one study, more than 2,000 middle-aged white men with no known cardiovascular disease (CVD) at baseline were enrolled in a 10-year study. Participants were tested for a multitude of indices, which were later correlated with any development of CVD during the trial. In this large, community-based sample, the findings indicated that higher endogenous serum estradiol levels — as would be seen with DHEA-S — were consistent with a lower risk of CVD.6
This article originally appeared on Clinical Advisor