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One peek down a drugstore aisle and you’ll probably notice DHEA supplements.
DHEA is said to help with everything from erectile dysfunction (ED) and depression to obesity and body fat distribution.
We hate to break it to you, but that may not be the case.
The TL;DR? Studies are limited on DHEA for men, and the research we do have shows mixed results. While it’s been shown to help with ED and depression, the supplement isn’t generally recommended by healthcare professionals — plus, other better-researched treatments are available.
Keep reading to find out if DHEA can help with a range of health issues, what the side effects are and what alternatives to consider.
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DHEA (short for dehydroepiandrosterone) is a steroid hormone. It’s made by your adrenal glands and liver and is converted into male and female sex hormones.
DHEA can be lower in people with depression and after menopause, and levels tend to decrease as you age.
At age 70 to 80, DHEA levels may be down to 10 to 20 percent of those in a younger person.
This drop in DHEA correlates with age-related changes such as depression, memory problems, erectile dysfunction, decreased libido and bone density loss.
Synthetic DHEA is available as an oral supplement or as a cream. Prescription topical DHEA can be used by menopausal women to treat thining vaginal tissue. ver-the-counter DHEA supplements are also available for men and women..
DHEA is said to be good for:
But the jury’s still out on whether it’s an effective treatment for these issues.
Fun fact: The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) have all banned DHEA, as it may offer some performance gains.
There’s lots of talk on the benefits of DHEA supplements for men. We’ll go over some potential benefits and the science behind them below.
Low levels of DHEA in men are linked to a higher risk of ED — and the hormone may even play a role in erections.
Some studies show that DHEA supplements may help with ED, but it’s not usually a recommended treatment, as more research is needed.
One study from way back in 1999 looked at 40 participants with ED. Half of them took an oral dose of 50 milligrams (mg) of DHEA once a day for six months, and the other half took a placebo.
At the six-month mark, DHEA administration was found to improve ED in measures like erectile function, orgasmic function, sexual desire, intercourse satisfaction and overall sexual satisfaction.
Promising. But the study is old and small.
Studies on DHEA and body composition are conflicting. Some research shows that DHEA doesn’t make a difference to body composition, while other studies have found that DHEA supplementation can reduce fat mass in older men.
A pooled analysis of four clinical trials found that when men 55 and older took DHEA for 12 months, they had a decrease in fat mass compared to a placebo.
A 2013 meta-analysis looked at 25 studies on DHEA supplementation that included almost 1,400 elderly men. The results showed that DHEA was linked to a reduction in fat mass when DHEA was converted into substances like androgens or estrogens in the body.
In the meta-analysis, DHEA wasn’t found to improve factors like glycemic metabolism, bone health, sexual function or quality of life.
DHEA levels are lower in those with depression, so supplementation may help.
A 2005 placebo-controlled study looked at men and women aged 45 to 65 with midlife-onset major or minor depression. Participants followed a six-week DHEA treatment plan that included 90 milligrams of DHEA daily for three weeks and 450 milligrams a day for three weeks.
At the end of the experiment, both depression and sexual function significantly improved compared to baseline levels and placebo.
This seems promising. But again, the study had a small sample size — only 23 men and 23 women — so larger studies are needed.
Adrenal insufficiency is when your adrenal glands don’t make enough hormones. It includes Addison’s disease, which is when your adrenal glands are damaged and may not produce enough hormones, including DHEA, as well as secondary and tertiary causes for insufficient adrenal hormone production..
DHEA supplementation might help. A 2004 review highlighted studies that have been done on the topic. DHEA supplements were shown to help women with adrenal insufficiency, improving depression, anxiety, mood and overall well-being.
Research in men and women with Addison’s disease showed that 50 milligrams of DHEA a day for three months led to improved hormone levels, well-being, self-esteem, fatigue and mood.
That said, there are also studies showing that it doesn’t always have a positive impact on testosterone levels.
The 1999 study mentioned earlier found that DHEA didn’t increase testosterone levels in participants when they took 50 milligrams of DHEA daily for six months.
And the pooled analysis found that women taking DHEA for 12 months had increased concentrations of testosterone — but the men didn’t.
FYI, this research also found that DHEA may help preserve muscle mass and bone mineral density in women. But it wasn’t effective for the fellas.
You can learn more in our guide to supplements used as testosterone boosters.
You might have noticed a theme here. More research is needed on DHEA supplement benefits. DHEA has potential, but we just don’t know enough about it yet.
The other thing to note is that many studies have been done on older populations, so more research is needed to see if DHEA could help younger men.
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There’s no set time it takes for DHEA to work. It’ll depend on what you’re taking DHEA for, the dose you’re taking and your own biology.
Studies show that DHEA may improve ED after six months of daily supplementation, whereas depression has been shown to improve in just six weeks.
DHEA dosage for men will depend on why you’re taking the supplement. A healthcare provider can evaluate your needs and figure out the ideal dosage for you.
Dosages in clinical studies range from 25 to 200 milligrams a day. But the recommended oral dose of DHEA ranges from 25 to 50 milligrams a day.
It’s unclear whether high doses above 50 to 100 milligrams daily are safe.
The potential side effects of DHEA include:
Increased facial, armpit and pubic hair growth (hello again, teenage years)
DHEA side effects are usually mild.
When taken short-term and in low doses — we’re talking 50 milligrams daily for up to two years — DHEA appears to be safe.
It’s unclear if DHEA is safe in high doses or for long-term use. Doses above 50 to 100 milligrams a day or taking DHEA for an extended period could up your odds of serious side effects.
DHEA may make certain health conditions worse. For example, if you have diabetes, DHEA could change how insulin works in your body, so it’s crucial to discuss with your healthcare provider and monitor your blood sugar carefully.
The supplement might lower HDL (high-density lipoprotein, aka good cholesterol), making liver problems worse. It could also cause excitability, impulsiveness and irritability in people with mood disorders. One more thing — DHEA shouldn’t be used in men with prostate cancer.
Talk to a healthcare provider if you have diabetes, liver disease, high cholesterol or any other health conditions before taking DHEA.
DHEA can also interfere with some medications, including:
Medications changed by the liver
Anticoagulant and antiplatelet drugs
Speak to a healthcare provider about any medications or dietary supplements you take before starting DHEA supplements.
We can’t confidently say DHEA is the answer for men with problems like sexual dysfunction and depression. But fret not, because plenty of other available treatments are backed by science.
For example, if ED is wreaking havoc on your love life, PDE5 inhibitors can help. PDE5 inhibitors are medications that increase blood flow to your penis to help you get hard.
FDA-approved PDE5 inhibitors include:
Avanafil (generic for Stendra®)
Vardenafil (generic for Levitra® or Staxyn®)
You can also get Hims hard mints. These chewable ED meds contain the active ingredients in Cialis, Levitra and Staxyn at different dosages.
Learn more in our guide to PDE5 inhibitors.
These ED meds aren’t available over the counter (OTC), so you’ll have to talk to a healthcare professional to get them.
As tempting as they can be, avoid OTC pills claiming to be Viagra and other ED meds. They’re not regulated and come with risks.
Chat with your primary care provider or a urology specialist. You can also connect with one of our licensed healthcare professionals online.
ED can be caused by psychological factors, such as stress, anxiety, relationship problems or sexual performance anxiety. In these cases, therapy can help. You can talk with a therapist face to face or check out our online therapy services to tackle the problem from home.
A healthcare provider may also suggest natural remedies or lifestyle changes, like making upgrades to your diet and exercise routine or cutting down on smoking and drinking.
Check out our guide to supplements for ED.
If you’re considering DHEA for depression, again, consult a pro. Talking through your feelings with a therapist or starting medication like antidepressants may be a much better bet than DHEA supplementation.
DHEA isn’t generally recommended as a treatment for various health issues. There’s just not enough research into the usefulness of DHEA for men yet.
Here’s what you need to know:
DHEA might help with ED, depression and adrenal insufficiency. There’s some promising research on the supplement, but studies are often small, old or inconclusive. Bit of a letdown, we know.
DHEA comes with risks and side effects. Like any supplement, there are a few risks. Watch out for side effects like oily skin, acne and stomach upset. And talk to a healthcare provider about any medical conditions you have or medication you’re on that could interfere with DHEA supplements.
There are science-backed alternatives. Turning to DHEA for ED? Consider therapy or ED drugs like Viagra. Depression? Therapy and antidepressants may be more effective.
Whatever you’re looking into DHEA for, consider speaking with a healthcare professional first.
We know it might be embarrassing if you’re battling ED or feeling blue, but an expert can offer guidance on whether DHEA is the best treatment for you.
You may be better off sticking with tried-and-true depression and erectile dysfunction treatments. Explore these options online through our telehealth services.
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