Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE)
Lupus or SLE is an autoimmune disorder. That means that the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own tissue, thinking it is a foreign invader. A number of clinical studies have reported that taking DHEA along with other medications helps improve quality of life for people with lupus, though it probably does not change the overall course of their disease.
Several studies have found that some people who take DHEA supplements may be able take less prescription medication. DHEA may also reduce the frequency of flare-ups, enhance mental function, and boost bone mass in women with lupus. Many studies use 200 mg per day of DHEA, which can raise levels of testosterone and lower HDL “good” cholesterol. One study found that a lower dose -- 20mg - 30mg -- might also work. Most of these studies have been small, so more studies are needed to see whether DHEA is safe and effective for people with lupus.
DHEA is one of the hormones made by the adrenal glands. With adrenal insufficiency, the adrenal glands do not make enough hormones, including DHEA and cortisol. That happens either because of problems with the pituitary gland or damage to the adrenal glands themselves (also called Addison’s disease).
Several studies suggest that taking DHEA may help improve mood, fatigue, and well-being. In one study, women with this condition who took DHEA supplements reported improved sexuality and sense of well-being, including fewer feelings of depression and anxiety.
Adrenal insufficiency requires a doctor’s care. You shouldn’t take DHEA on your own for adrenal insufficiency. Severe adrenal insufficiency can be a medical emergency, especially when first diagnosed.
In a few clinical studies of people with major depression, DHEA improved symptoms compared to placebo. However, the results aren’t entirely clear, and researchers don’t know what the long-term effects of taking DHEA might be. More research is needed. Don’t try to treat depression by yourself. People with depression need medical care.
Some clinical studies have shown that DHEA may help reduce bone loss in older women. It doesn’t seem to have the same effect in men, and in one study it didn’t help women who were under age 70.
Clinical studies using DHEA to treat overweight people have found conflicting results. Animal studies have found DHEA to help reduce body weight. But studies of men and women found that taking DHEA didn’t change total body weight, although total body fat and LDL ("bad") cholesterol did improve. In one study, the men lowered body fat but the women did not. More studies, with larger numbers of people, are needed.
One study found that DHEA helped men with erectile dysfunction get and sustain an erection, possibly because the body converts DHEA into testosterone. However, the study didn’t fully analyze the results, so more research is needed to know whether DHEA really helps.
Improved libido in women
Study results have been mixed, but some seem to suggest that DHEA may help improve sex drive in older women (but not younger women).
Because DHEA levels decline with age, some researchers have investigated whether taking DHEA supplements could slow or prevent age-related mental or physical problems. Preliminary results from the DHEAge study in France suggested DHEA may slow bone loss, improve skin health, and improve sexual drive in women over 70. But people in the study didn’t have any improvement in muscle function and strength. And another study found that men and women over 60 who took DHEA for 2 years didn’t have any improvement in bone density, muscle strength, insulin sensitivity, or quality of life.
In terms of memory loss, some studies have shown that DHEA improves learning and memory in people who have low DHEA levels. But other studies have not found any improvement. More studies are needed to see whether DHEA can reduce complications of aging.
People with HIV tend to have low levels of DHEA, and these levels go down even more as the disease progresses. In one small clinical study, DHEA improved mental function in men and women with HIV. However, so far no human studies show whether DHEA can improve immune function in people with HIV.
DHEA has been popular among perimenopausal women, who took it to relieve symptoms of menopause, including decreased sex drive, diminished skin tone, and vaginal dryness. But the studies have been mixed.
In one clinical study, DHEA supplements did raise levels of some hormones in postmenopausal women. DHEA supplementation in healthy pre- and postmenopausal women is controversial. Clinical studies show conflicting results as to whether DHEA can improve sexual function, metabolism, and overall well-being. More studies are needed to better understand how and whether DHEA works, and if it safe.
People who believe in using DHEA claim that it relieves menopausal symptoms without increasing the risk of breast cancer or cancer of the lining of the uterus -- unlike prescription hormone replacement therapy, which does increase risk of these cancers. But there is no proof that DHEA does not also increase risk of these cancers.
People with a history of cancer or at high risk for cancer should not take DHEA without their doctor’s supervision. DHEA can be converted into either estrogen or testosterone in the body, which may be dangerous for women or men with a history of hormone-sensitive cancers such as breast or prostate cancer. Women with breast cancer tend to have low levels of DHEA in their bodies. Scientists don't know whether taking DHEA may increase or reduce growth of breast cancer cells.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
DHEA levels appear to be low in people with ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. A small study found that DHEA was effective for use in ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. But the study wasn’t well designed. More studies are needed to say for sure whether DHEA helps IBD.
A few clinical studies suggest that DHEA supplementation may be beneficial for other health conditions, including infertility, schizophrenia, cocaine withdrawal, and dementia. More studies are needed to know for sure.
Because of the potential for side effects and interactions with medications, dietary supplements should be taken only under the supervision of a knowledgeable health care provider.
People under 40 shouldn’t take DHEA unless they have low levels as determined by their doctors. People taking DHEA should have their blood levels checked every 6 months.
Very few studies have been done on the long-term safety of DHEA.
Because your body uses DHEA to make estrogen and testosterone, people with hormone-related cancers (such as breast, prostate, ovarian, adrenal, and testicular cancer) or a family history of these cancers should not take DHEA.
DHEA may make other hormone-related conditions, such as endometriosis or polycystic ovarian syndrome, worse.
Some experts are concerned that DHEA may make liver problems worse.
Some experts think people with a history of depression or bipolar disorder may have side effects from using DHEA including mania and irritability.
High doses of DHEA may stop the body from making the hormone itself. High doses also may be toxic to liver cells. At least one case of hepatitis has been reported. People who have liver disease should avoid DHEA.
People with diabetes should not take DHEA, because it may increase insulin resistance.
DHEA may increase the production of the male hormone testosterone. Women should be aware of the risk of developing signs of masculinization. These include loss of hair on the head, deepening of the voice, growth of hair on the face, weight gain around the waist, or acne. Men should be aware of the risks of too much testosterone, such as shrinkage of the testicles, aggression, male pattern baldness, high blood pressure, and possible higher risk for testosterone-related cancers. Call your health care provider if any of these symptoms occur.
Other side effects can include high blood pressure and reduced HDL “good” cholesterol.
The International Olympic Committee and National Football League banned the use of DHEA because its effects are similar to those of anabolic steroids.
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