Friday, February 11

The facts on DHEA
By Stella L. Volpe, Ph.D., R.D., FACSM

Discovered in 1934, dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, is a metabolic predecessor of the hormones testosterone and estrogen. Because DHEA levels peak in early adulthood, it has been called the "youth hormone." Several studies have correlated increased DHEA levels in the blood to vigor, health and well-being.

But, remember, just because a study finds positive correlations does not mean that there is a "cause and effect." That is, DHEA may not have caused these feelings of increased vigor, better health and overall well-being. Furthermore, it is difficult for researchers to measure vigor and well-being, even with expertly designed surveys.

Morales and colleagues studied DHEA in 1994 to assess its effects in older individuals. Thirteen men and 17 women between 40 and 70 years of age took 50 milligrams of DHEA per day for six months. Keep in mind that 13 men and 17 women is not a large sample for "study" purposes.

Study Results

Morales and his associates conducted a placebo-controlled, crossover study. In this kind of study, half of the participants received 50 milligrams of DHEA per day, while the other half received an identical-looking placebo pill. After a specified length of time, the group receiving the placebo received DHEA, and the group receiving DHEA received the placebo.

The study found:

  • An increase in blood levels of DHEA in only two weeks. The blood levels of DHEA were similar to blood levels of DHEA in persons 20 years of age.

  • Study participants demonstrated a perceived increase in physical and psychological well-being.

  • Study participants had an increase in the availability of insulin-like growth factor, also known as IGF-I. This finding suggests that DHEA might be helpful for diabetes mellitus by creating insulin-like properties, and also for increasing muscle mass by creating growth-promoting properties.

It is possible, however, that participants experienced the placebo effect.

Common DHEA misconceptions

  • DHEA assists with weight reduction -- There is no reported scientific evidence to show that DHEA assists with losing weight.

  • If DHEA is a predecessor to testosterone, it converts to testosterone in the body, and hence, results in increased testosterone levels and increased muscle mass -- Studies have shown that DHEA does not convert to testosterone, but to dehydrotestosterone, or DHT. DHT has been shown to cause adverse side effects like irritability, acne, tachycardia and prostate enlargement. These are undesirable side effects that can have serious negative effects on health.

  • DHEA promotes renewed vigor and a sense of well-being -- Although some studies have reported that DHEA may increase feelings of well-being, more studies need to be conducted. No cause-effect relationship has been established.

Many sports organizations, such as the National College Athletic Association, the United States Olympic Committee and the National Football League have banned DHEA. Thus, for competitive athletes in these organizations, not only would it be unwise to take DHEA, it would be illegal.


The risks of DHEA far outweigh any benefits. This is not a recommended supplement.


  • Placebo effect -- a physical or emotional change occurring after a substance is taken or administered that is not the result of any special property of the substance, for example, a sugar pill. A placebo is given so that study participants do not know what they are taking. Placebos strengthen study design.

  • Insulin-like growth factor (IGF-I) -- made in the liver and has both insulin-like and growth-promoting properties.

  • Diabetes mellitus -- a disease in which the pancreas cannot produce enough insulin. Two major types of diabetes mellitus are: Type 1 diabetes mellitus -- formerly called "juvenile onset" diabetes, occurs when the pancreas is unable to make enough insulin.

  • Type 2 diabetes mellitus -- formerly called "adult onset" diabetes, occurs when the pancreas does make insulin, but the body's receptors do not recognize that insulin. Type 2 diabetes is often a result of obesity.

  • Insulin -- a hormone that helps bring glucose, or blood sugar, into the body's cells, so that the body can use it for energy.

  • Glucose -- also known as "blood sugar", glucose is the breakdown product of carbohydrates, such as breads, pastas and cereals.

  • Tachycardia -- a higher-than-normal heart rate at rest, usually 100 beats per minute or faster. An average, "normal" heart rate at rest is 72 beats per minute.

Stella L. Volpe, Ph.D., R.D., FACSM, is an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition, director of the Center for Nutrition in Sport and Human Performance, and an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

The information, including opinions and recommendations, contained in this website is for educational purposes only. Such information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. No one should act upon any information provided in this website without first seeking medical advice from a qualified medical physician.

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