What is DHEA?
Dehydroepiandrosterone, more commonly known as DHEA, is a very popular supplement among the muscle building crowd that is also recognized as a banned substance within most major sports venues.
DHEA is naturally produced in the body and it plays an important role in dozens of metabolic and hormonal processes.
What are the Benefits of DHEA?
Before we discuss the benefits of DHEA as they relate to testosterone, let’s take a look at other things that DHEA may have a positive influence on.
May Set the Stage for Muscle Growth
The supplement, which you can buy over-the-counter, is often confused as a direct way to increase muscle mass.
Studies show that supplementation may promote an environment for muscle growth by increasing IGF-1 but that does NOT guarantee muscle growth.
It’s best to look at dehydroepiandrosterone as a muscle support supplement and not the bodybuilding wonder pill that it’s made out to be. (1)
May Improve Mood, Alleviate Depression
If you notice that your mood isn’t quite the same, studies suggest that DHEA may be an effective natural support remedy to elevate your mood.
Studies also demonstrate that DHEA can be considered in treatment for depression as it was shown to alleviate symptoms associated with the condition.
Many depression medications have nasty side effects so having the ability to reduce or eliminate your depression medication has huge implications. (2)
May Boost Libido in Women
While men have also reported higher levels of libido from taking DHEA, there are no studies to back this claim up for guys.
Women, on the other hand, may be interested in taking DHEA if they aren’t feeling the same spark as before.
A study confirmed that DHEA supplementation was an effective remedy for post-menopausal women to elevate their libido and sex drive. (3)
Does DHEA Increase Testosterone?
DHEA may be an effective testosterone booster but not for the men. Studies show that women were the ones who experienced increased levels of testosterone, dihydrotestosterone, and cortisol when supplementing with DHEA.
If you are a woman, don’t worry! The increases weren’t enough to turn women into buff bodybuilders. It was an insignificant increase but it’s worth noting that the guys in this study didn’t see any improvement in testosterone levels. (1)
May Halt Declining Testosterone Levels in Response to HIIT
High intensity interval training has been getting a lot of attention in the last decade and with good reason: it works. HIIT can help you burn fat, build muscle, and spike performance.
The one thing that most websites won’t tell you about HIIT is that precautions must be taken, especially for guys. HIIT has been shown to drop testosterone levels for newcomers. DHEA has been shown in one study to stop this decrease in testosterone levels for young and middle-aged guys.
The implication is that you can use DHEA to protect your hormone levels during the acclimation process to HIIT. (4)
The Bottom Line
While dehydroepiandrosterone is not the bodybuilding superstar that it’s made out to be, it’s not necessarily a terrible supplement to consider given the right circumstances.
It has been shown to elevate your mood, support recovery, enhance an anabolic environment, and boost libido (for women). As for testosterone, DHEA is not going to turn you into the Incredible Hulk. Sorry to burst the bubble on this one.
Additional Editor’s Notes
As David pointed out there is a lot of “may’s” attached to any potential benefits but no hard evidence showing actual proof.
It’s also important to note that dehydroepiandrosterone has been banned in most major professional and amateur sports venues including the NFL, NBA, MLB, NCAA, and the Olympics.
The reason for this, however, may have less to do with its effectiveness in enhancing athletic performance and more to do with its potential side effects.
DHEA Side Effects
Thanks in part to all of the hype surrounding dehydroepiandrosterone following a couple of high profile MLB players which used the supplement, it became very popular among military personnel.
So popular in fact, a study was commissioned to study the safety of the drug.
This study didn’t find any positive benefits of significance with supplementation but did come to the conclusion that due to significant concerns over side effects, it should be added to the “list of dietary supplements to avoid”. (5)
Some, but not all of the reported side effects of DHEA include:
- Mood swings and other psychological symptoms
- Higher blood pressure
- Liver problems
- Changes in cholesterol level
- Breast enlargement
- Shrunken testicles
- Reduced sperm production
- Hair loss
- Prostate Health Concerns (6)
- Declining HDL “good” cholesterol*
*Good HDL numbers are very important to maximizing your natural testosterone production.
Harvard University says DHEA is Not Effective
Harvard’s prestigious medical school says it best themselves, so I will leave off with a quote from Harvard Health Publishing.
“DHEA is big business, reaping tens of millions of dollars for the supplement industry each year. It is heavily promoted as a “super hormone” and an “antidote for aging” that can strengthen the immune system, slow memory loss, melt body fat, build strong muscles and bones, prevent heart disease and cancer, enhance energy and sexuality, and fight Alzheimer’s disease. None of these claims is supported by current medical science. But that has not stopped manufacturers from touting the hormone.” (7)
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- Morales AJ1, Haubrich RH, Hwang JY, Asakura H, Yen SS. The effect of six months treatment with a 100 mg daily dose of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) on circulating sex steroids, body composition and muscle strength in age-advanced men and women. Clin Endocrinol (Oxf). 1998 Oct;49(4):421-32. – Link
- Peixoto C, Devicari Cheda JN, Nardi AE, Veras AB, Cardoso A. The effects of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) in the treatment of depression and depressive symptoms in other psychiatric and medical illnesses: a systematic review. Curr Drug Targets. 2014;15(9):901-14. – Link
- Panjari M, Davis SR. DHEA therapy for women: effect on sexual function and wellbeing. Hum Reprod Update. 2007 May-Jun;13(3):239-48. Epub 2007 Jan 5. – Link
- Liu TC, Lin CH, Huang CY, Ivy JL, Kuo CH. Effect of acute DHEA administration on free testosterone in middle-aged and young men following high-intensity interval training. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013 Jul;113(7):1783-92. doi: 10.1007/s00421-013-2607-x. Epub 2013 Feb 17. – Link
- Use of Dietary Supplements by Military Personnel. Show details Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Dietary Supplement Use by Military Personnel; Greenwood MRC, Oria M, editors. Washington (DC): Nation – Link
- DHEA metabolism in prostate: For better or worse? Julia T. Arnold, PhD – Link
- Harvard Men’s Health Watch DHEA and health: More questions than answers Published: April, 2007 – Link