Make sure you understand the potential side effects of taking DHEA-- as well as the contraindications-- before you begin a regimen.
What Is DHEA
DHEA is a hormone precursor appearing naturally in the human body. Created and secreted primarily by the adrenal glands, and the brain, skin, testes, and ovaries to a lesser degree, DHEA acts as a precursor to the sex hormones, androgens for men and estrogens for women. Although people in their 20s normally have DHEA in abundance, production starts to decrease after age 30 and may be inadequate after age 35. Senior citizens generally have about 80 percent less of the hormone than do people in their 20s. Levels of DHEA are especially low in people with certain diseases or disorders, including:
- Kidney disease
DHEA supplementation is available in the form of pills, creams, and even tea, and is often prescribed for people with lupus, depression, erectile dysfunction, Crohn's disease, and adrenal insufficiency. Other, "off market" uses include: to increase weight loss, to build muscle, to increase athletic performance, and to slow the aging process.
Common Side Effects of Taking DHEA
Some people taking DHEA have reported unusual cardiac symptoms, such as irregular heartbeat, skipping beats, and palpitations. Some people also experience increases in blood pressure while taking DHEA. These cardiac symptoms are seen more often in people taking high doses of the supplement. Cardiac symptoms appear to be more common in patients taking more than 10 mg per day.
Since DHEA is converted to estrogen and androgens, some users will experience hormone-related changes in their body. For some women taking DHEA, especially for long periods of time, this translates into masculine traits, such as a deeper voice, facial hair, chest hair, hair loss, mood changes, and increased sweating. This can also mean menstrual changes.
For men, these hormonal changes may include breast enlargement, breast tenderness, and testicular atrophy. There have also been reports on reduced sperm count and infertility. Both men and women may suffer hormone-related headaches and acne.
Interactions with Other Medications
Studies have shown that DHEA may disrupt the liver's ability to process some drugs and medications, leading to higher levels of the drugs being released into the bloodstream. Some medications that may be affected by DHEA supplementation include:
- Glucose-lowering medications
- Hormonal medications, such as birth control pills and HRT (hormone replacement therapy)
- Cancer drugs
- Blood clot medications, such as aspirin and heparin
- Herbal supplements
- Heart medications
Since research about drug interactions is ongoing, you should consult with a doctor or pharmacist before combining DHEA with any other medication, whether prescribed, other-the-counter, or herbal.
Side Effects in Children
Since children and adolescents have high levels of naturally occurring DHEA in their bodies, they should not take DHEA supplements. This can cause abnormally high levels of DHEA and the sex hormones, and may result in:
- Premature puberty
- Stunted growth
- Increased risk for prostate, breast, uterine, or ovarian cancers
Side Effects in Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
DHEA supplementation is not safe during pregnancy as studies have shown it to cause miscarriage. Since DHEA is not safe for infants or children, it should also not be used by breastfeeding mothers.
Minimizing Side Effects
Severe side effects of taking DHEA are most often seen in people who shouldn't be taking the supplement in the first place or in people taking higher than prescribed doses. That's why it's important to consult with a physician before starting a DHEA regimen. If your doctor has suggested DHEA, take it only in the recommended dosages. Please note that, although DHEA is available over-the-counter in doses up to 100 mg, some doctors feel that 5 mg to 10 mg per day is the maximum recommended dose. Most doctors also believe that DHEA is not safe for long-term use. Consult with a doctor or pharmacist for dosing information. People with cancer, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses should not take DHEA unless specifically prescribed by a doctor.