Should I Take DHEA?

For the week of: 3/31/97

Question: “I'm interested in taking DHEA supplements. I'm a guy in my early 40's and would like to improve my energy, sexual vitality and mental clarity. I realize that most of the claims about the benefits of this drug are being made by the same people who will profit by selling it to me. Can you give me an unbiased medical opinion about DHEA?”

Answer: DHEA, or Dehydroepiandrosterone, has had much popular press recently. It is a “phytochemical”, meaning that while derived from plants, it also is found in animals. Below is an excerpt from a larger article on exercise nutrition I compiled for my athletic patients.

From: Exercise Nutrition for Healthy People

DHEA is the latest “wonder food” making drug-like claims for weight loss, enhanced performance, and an improved love life. It is a plant derived version of a human steroid produced by the adrenal gland that can be changed into sex hormones in other tissues. It has been shown to cause weight loss in rats, but actually increases unhealthy abdominal fat in humans! It tends to become a female hormone in men, and a male hormone in women! It may cause an imbalance in the brain's control of the Adrenal gland with prolonged use. Initial studies suggesting decreased risk of heart attack, improved libido, enhanced mental processes, and increased lean muscle mass has not been substantiated in humans. It may have a role in Rheumatoid arthritis or AIDS.

Editors Note: I think the author of this question raises a very important point. How many of the claims made about products such as DHEA are from the folks who stand to make a substantial profit from your uninformed consumption of these “supplements”. A recent study about people who use the Internet to retrieve health care information showed that the consumer wants more information about nutritional supplements from the medical community. Fully 50% of the “informational” sites out here in the virtual world are by individuals or companies trying to sell you something. We will try harder to give you unbiased medical opinions about these supplements by reputable doctors who have nothing to gain whether or not you use supplements.
I'll leave you with a few excerpts from the University of California at Berkeley Wellness Letter, Vol. 12, Issue 4, January, 1996.

“Nobody knows whether the effects of DHEA come from the hormone itself, or from the sex hormones and other steroids the body converts it into. It's uncertain which organs it affects and how it does so. It's been an enigma ever since it was discovered in 1934.”

“In one experiment, 14 out of 16 rats developed liver cancer. That doesn't mean, of course, that the same thing would happen in humans, but if this were an experimental drug, it would be banned by the FDA on this basis.”

“Human hormones are powerful chemicals. Until a great deal more is known about DHEA, we don't think you should take it, unless you enroll in a controlled experiment with a qualified investigator.”

Personally, I second that opinion!

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.