Product Review: DHEA Supplements
Initial Posting: 7/18/15
What You Need to Know About DHEA Supplements
- There is weak evidence that taking DHEA (a hormone the body uses to create other hormones, including estrogen and testosterone) may help improve mood, and in older men and women, sexual function and the appearance of the skin. (See "What It Does")
- Products reviewed by ConsumerLab.com were found to contain what they claimed and did not exceed contamination limits for heavy metals. However, labeled amounts of DHEA in products tested varied considerably, from 10 mg to 100 mg per pill — so it's important to choose one that provides the right dose for the intended use, at the best price. See the top choices of products "Approved" by ConsumerLab.com.
- A typical dose is about 50 mg of DHEA per day, although for some uses, such as depression, the dose may be higher. (See "What to Consider When Buying and Using")
- DHEA may increase testosterone levels in women, and should not be taken by women with hormone-sensitive diseases, such as breast cancer. It may also decrease levels of HDL ("good cholesterol") and increase insulin resistance. See "Concerns and Cautions" for other potential side effects and drug interactions.
What It Is:
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a hormone produced in the body by the adrenal glands. DHEA in dietary supplements is synthetic, manufactured from plant chemicals found in soybeans and wild yam. You cannot, however, get DHEA directly from eating soy or yams. Other names for DHEA are prasterone and DHEA sulfate. In the U.S., DHEA is sold only as a dietary supplement or by compounding pharmacies. A pharmaceutical-grade preparation trademarked Prestara was in development in the U.S. but failed to gain FDA approval. In Canada, DHEA is classified as a controlled drug and not available as a supplement. Be aware that 7-keto DHEA (used in some weight loss supplements and reviewed separately by ConsumerLab.com) is not the same as DHEA.
What It Does:
Anti-Aging: The body uses DHEA to produce other steroidal hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone, after first converting it into androstenedione. Levels of DHEA peak in a person's 20's and then begin to decline. On this basis, DHEA supplements have been touted as a kind of "fountain of youth," said to reverse the effects of aging.
DHEA, however, is not a general anti-aging solution. In more than ten double-blind studies enrolling thousands of seniors, DHEA supplementation has failed to improve general well-being, muscle mass or mental function. On the other hand, a recent study (Weiss, Am J Clin Nutr 2009) showed that DHEA (50 mg per day) taken with vitamin D and calcium improves bone mineral density in the spines of older in women (but not in men). There is weak evidence that DHEA, in women over age 70, might help improve sexual dysfunction. In elderly men and women DHEA may also increase skin thickness and hydration as well as decrease facial skin pigmentation (Baulieu, Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2000). DHEA may also improve erectile dysfunction in men who have low DHEA levels (see Product Review of Supplements for Sexual Enhancement). Very weak evidence hints that when given to seniors, DHEA might enhance the immune response to vaccines.
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE): This autoimmune disease is estimated to affect up to 1.5 million Americans. The vast majority of those afflicted with SLE are women. According to several studies, DHEA may permit a reduction of the normal dose of corticosteroid medication. Initial research suggested that it might also offset side effects of corticosteroid therapy such as accelerated osteoporosis, but a 6-month study showed no statistical benefit over placebo.
Other: Growing evidence suggests that DHEA might be helpful for depression. The largest study involved 145 people with HIV/AIDS as well as mild depression. Over a period of eight weeks, use of DHEA at a dose of up to 400 mg daily significantly improved symptoms as compared to placebo (Rabkin, Am J Psychiatry 2006). A much smaller study found it possibly helpful for midlife onset of major and minor depression.
According to two studies by a single research group, DHEA may enhance the effectiveness and reduce the side effects of medications used for treatment of schizophrenia.
According to some but not all studies, in women with adrenal failure DHEA may help improve mood and bone density when used in conjunction with standard hormone replacement therapy. DHEA has also shown promise as an additional hormonal treatment in pituitary failure.
There is preliminary evidence that DHEA might also be helpful in chronic fatigue syndrome (Himmel, J Clin Rhematol 1999).
Most studies of DHEA in athletic performance and as a weight loss aid have not shown a benefit — although DHEA remains banned from use in Olympic athletes and in the National Basketball Association (NBA). 7-keto DHEA (a metabolite of DHEA that can not be converted into estrogen or testosterone) may have application in weight loss, although the evidence is preliminary (see Product Review of Supplements for Weight Loss and Diabetes Management).
There is evidence that DHEA could potentially contribute to plaque formation in arteries. See the ConsumerTips™ section of this review for more information about suggested dosage and concerns and cautions. More information about the clinical uses of DHEA can be found in an article in the Natural Products Encyclopedia on this Web site.
Quality Concerns and What CL Tested For:
Previous tests of DHEA supplements by ConsumerLab.com identified products that did not contain their listed amounts of DHEA. In 2006, ConsumerLab.com identified a product that contained more than double its listed amount of DHEA. In 2002, ConsumerLab.com found three products which contained less DHEA than claimed. Neither the FDA nor any other federal or state agency routinely tests supplements for quality prior to sale. Consequently, ConsumerLab.com again tested DHEA products to determine if they contained the amounts of DHEA listed on their labels and were not contaminated with lead, cadmium or arsenic. Tablets and caplets were also tested to be sure that they could disintegrate properly for absorption (See Testing Methods and Passing Score for more information).