When it comes to hormones, testosterone, estrogen, and cortisol tend to receive all of the attention. But there is another hormone that is critical for total health —dehydroepiandrosterone, more commonly known as DHEA. Often considered an anti-aging hormone, DHEA is a popular supplement among athletes and bodybuilders because it is thought by some to increase performance and muscle strength. Let’s take a deeper dive into what the science actually says about this key hormone.
What is DHEA?
DHEA is a hormone that is made primarily in the small triangular glands that sit on top of your kidneys known as the adrenal glands. Smaller amounts of DHEA are produced in the brain and the gonads, which are the reproductive glands found in a man’s testes or a woman’s ovaries.
Even though DHEA is abundant when you are young, production peaks around the age of 30 and declines throughout the remainder of your life. In fact, it is estimated that DHEA levels can drop by as much as 90% over the course of a lifetime. That has led people to supplement with DHEA in hopes of reversing this hormonal decline and its effects on aging.
Researchers have found that the observed benefit of DHEA therapy on the lumbar spine BMD in older women and men combined across the four studies was driven by the beneficial effects in women.
Bone loss is a very common health concern as we grow older. As a result, about one-quarter of all women and about 5% of all men over the age of 65 develop osteoporosis. Some studies suggest that supplementing with DHEA may improve bone mineral density and reduce the risk of osteoporosis by increasing bone-forming osteoblasts as well as insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) activity. IGF-1 helps to promote healthy bone development.
DHEA also helps alleviate symptoms in those suffering from mild to moderate depression. A review of 22 studies that was published in the journal Current Drug Targets found that DHEA supplementation resulted in improved symptoms in those with mild depression and among those who were resistant to conventional therapy.
DHEA helps modulate immunity. One small study of men with an average age of 63 found that taking 50 mg of supplemental DHEA daily activated the immune system, possibly by enhancing IGF-1 levels by as much as 20%. While IGF-1 plays a role in bone health, it also stimulates important immune cells, such as regulatory T-cells and natural killer (NK) cells.
Because DHEA is a precursor to testosterone and estrogen, it makes sense that it would play a significant role in improving sexual and reproductive health, especially as we age.
An observational study of 50 premenopausal women published in the journal Endocrine found that supplementing with DHEA not only increased serum androgen levels, it also improved overall sexual function. All of the women taking part in the study completed a Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI) questionnaire at the beginning of the study and again at four and eight weeks after starting supplementation. By the end of the study, the researchers found that, on average, desire increased by 17%, arousal was enhanced by 12%, and vaginal lubrication improved by 8%. What’s more, those who began the study with the lowest FSFI scores experienced 54% more orgasms, were 24% more satisfied, and had 25% less pain during sex.
My recommendation for an oral dose of DHEA is 25-50 mg. It is also best to take your DHEA supplement at bedtime because this mimics the body’s natural rise of the hormone during sleep.
DHEA is generally safe and benefits older adults and those with certain health concerns such as bone loss, depression, or sexual dysfunction. For all these benefits, I consider DHEA as my favorite supplement. Be sure to speak with me before taking new supplements to ensure that it is right for you.
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