In this article:
- What is DHEA?
- Why do people use DHEA?
- Can DHEA improve thyroid function?
- Are there risks to taking DHEA
DHEA is a natural hormone produced by the body and is a dietary supplement. Sometimes, this hormone is referred to as the "fountain of youth" or an "anti-aging super hormone" because it has a steroid-like effect on the body. DHEA levels naturally decline as we age, but they may also be lower in people with health conditions like thyroid problems. Here's what you need to know about DHEA and if it can help with a thyroid condition.
What is DHEA?
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands. It is the most abundant steroid hormone in our bodies, and levels peak between ages 20 to 35. Throughout adulthood, DHEA levels drop an estimated 80%, with the decline starting around age 30.
Like thyroid hormones, DHEA is in a negative feedback loop with the brain. DHEA production begins with the hypothalamus, which releases a corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) to inform the pituitary on how to regulate the adrenal production of DHEA. The pituitary then secretes adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which is then received by the adrenals.
Numerous enzymatic processes are involved in making DHEA in the adrenal glands. Once DHEA is produced, it is converted into other hormones, including testosterone and estrogen.
Aside from creating sex hormones, DHEA may also play a role in the immune system, the body's stress response, and cognitive and memory function.
Why do people use DHEA?
People take DHEA supplements because our levels naturally fall as we age. Several physiological changes that occur with age may be partially related to low DHEA levels. Supplemental DHEA may help in the following ways:
To potentially improve or stabilize bone density
Men and women are both subject to reduced bone density with age. However, women are more prone to bone loss conditions like osteopenia and osteoporosis, especially postmenopausal women. Estrogen is a bone-protective hormone, so when estrogen levels fall after menopause, it can cause the bone to break down more quickly.
Some studies show that low DHEA levels may contribute to bone loss in both men and women. However, when given supplemental DHEA, the results are mixed on whether or not it improves bone density. Intriguingly, women taking DHEA showed slight improvements in bone density scores after taking supplements for 1-2 years, whereas men showed no difference. Therefore, women may benefit from DHEA supplements after menopause. However, studies note that taking calcium and vitamin D simultaneously is also necessary.
To combat depression
The evidence is inconclusive on whether or not DHEA can help stabilize neurohormones that contribute to depression. Some research shows that daily DHEA supplements may help treat mild depression that does not respond well to other treatment options. In contrast, other studies show it has no effect.
What is more, there are mixed results on whether or not low DHEA levels contribute to depression in the first place. For example, some studies found that DHEA levels in women in menopause with depression were higher than in those without depression. But, other studies show an opposite relationship, where more severe depression was associated with lower DHEA levels.
Before DHEA can be a recommended treatment option for depression, more evidence is needed to understand if and how DHEA affects mood and the brain.
To enhance sexual function
Because DHEA gets converted into estrogen and testosterone, higher DHEA levels may contribute to:
- Increased fertility
- Enhanced libido
- A reduction in sexual dysfunction problems
DHEA may be recommended during infertility treatment as it may increase the chance of fertilization. However, its most significant role in sexual function may be correcting sexual dysfunction in postmenopausal women. The studies found that DHEA supplements may increase libido, lubrication, and arousal, which are often lower in postmenopausal women due to the loss of estrogen.
Other uses for DHEA
People take DHEA for numerous other reasons. For example, some people may use it to correct adrenal insufficiency, increase muscle mass, and support weight loss. However, more research is needed to see precisely how supplemental DHEA can help the body in general.
Can DHEA improve thyroid function?
There is some talk that DHEA may help thyroid function. People think DHEA may be effective for the thyroid because individuals with adrenal conditions, like Addison's disease, often have thyroid conditions (like hypothyroidism). We also know that too much or too little thyroid hormone production can throw off other hormone levels, including those produced by the adrenal glands.
Few studies look at exactly how DHEA and thyroid hormones may interact with one another. One small study shows that people with hypothyroidism have low DHEA levels compared to those who are euthyroid. Interestingly, DHEA levels were normal in people with hyperthyroidism.
Furthermore, some symptoms found in people with low DHEA are also common in hypothyroidism, such as fatigue and low libido. More research is needed to see if DHEA can help improve thyroid function and if so, there needs to be guidance for appropriate dosing.
Side effects of DHEA
Before taking DHEA, it is essential to consult your doctor first, as there may be some unintended side effects associated with use. Some reported side effects of DHEA include:
- Hair loss
- Facial hair growth in women
- Oily skin that may lead to acne breakouts
- High blood pressure and irregular heartbeat
- Gastrointestinal upset
- Changes in the menstrual cycle
- Trouble sleeping
We do not have long-term studies on how DHEA affects the body, nor do we fully know how much it can impact other hormone levels like estrogen and testosterone. Therefore, working closely with your doctor before adding this supplement to your regimen is best.
The takeaway on DHEA
The jury is still out on whether or not DHEA is effective for people with thyroid conditions. Indeed, there is much to still uncover on the efficacy of this supplement for any condition, including weight control issues, depression, and sexual dysfunction.
Before trying DHEA, connect with your thyroid doctor to see if your thyroid function is optimal with a thyroid function test and explore how you can better your thyroid (and whole-body) health.