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I Began Taking DHEA Without Knowing What it Was
I’m a male in my 50s and I started taking 25mg of DHEA daily without knowing what it actually was. I started taking it with other supplements and thought it was just another vitamin.
Once I finally learned what DHEA was and did, I continued taking it because I discovered that it made me a little leaner, stronger and more energetic. But before I made the decision to keep taking DHEA, I researched the topic in depth and what I found was complicated and often confusing. So, once I got a grip on the information, I decided my personal experience and research might be helpful to others. My story is unique in that I had no expectations, no previous experience and no prior point of view at all regarding DHEA. This is the story of an accidental experience and serious follow up research.
I turned 50 in March 2020 around the beginning of the Covid pandemic. I had never been a person who took vitamins, but between getting older and the many reports that Vitamin D levels appeared to factor into how severely Covid affected you, this changed. I started off with a daily dose of Vitamin C and Vitamin D. Since I have a pretty good diet and get outside frequently there was no reason to have been deficient in these vitamins, and maybe that’s why I didn’t notice any difference in my wellbeing. But this daily routine eventually got me thinking about vitamins in general. I thought to myself, “Well, since I’m now taking two vitamins with no noticeable effect, why not take more!” So I also started taking a daily multivitamin and then a magnesium supplement alongside the C and D. Before long this progressed into the daily taking of every vitamin and supplement in my refrigerator at the time. Like a man.
How did I end up with all these supplements in my fridge? Well, my wife, Desi, is a vitamin-taker. Sort of. I would say she’s more of a vitamin-purchaser, because she buys them, takes them briefly, and then they tend to sit in the top right section of the refrigerator door. It’s not particularly valuable real estate, but I decided it was time to clear out all these ‘old vitamins,’ and I had become the man for the job. This would be a satisfyingly easy job since I was already in the daily vitamin routine and because I love to clear out things that aren’t getting used. Well… it turns out that one of these ‘old vitamins’ was DHEA. Then finally, one morning, Desi saw me pop the DHEA in my mouth. She cocked her head with a quizzical smile and asked “You’re taking that?” The look on her face and the way she said it immediately made me uncomfortable. I try to remain calm and reply, “Uh, yeah, why?” Rather than answer, her grin widens into almost laughter and she says, “For how long?” I feel heat rising to my cheeks and I try to control the grouchiness bubbling up. “I don’t know, maybe about 3 months? WHY?!” She still doesn’t answer and instead asks, “How much are you taking?” Now I start to get loud, “Only one! 25mg! Now will you please tell me what the actual fuck this is?” She bursts out laughing and tells me she bought it to increase her estrogen! At this point, I’m not sure what the look on my face was, but whatever she saw made her quickly add “No, no, no, for you it should increase your testosterone. And you’re not even taking a high dose.” I relaxed and thought for a second before I had a big “Aha!” moment.
Aha! That’s why! I realized when she told me DHEA increased testosterone that that was why I had gotten suddenly leaner around my belly and why my muscles had been noticeably more toned despite the fact that I had been working out less. It was just a little difference but enough to be noticeable. So learning that DHEA turns into testosterone put into perfect perspective what was going on with my body. Once this information sinks in I’m like “Ok, so now I get what’s happening and why.” But after a few more minutes to really think about it, I immediately start to wonder if there are potential side effects and what those might be. Even though I’ve been feeling really good while taking DHEA, I want to know what the risks are. I take a deep breath, head to google and type in “DHEA”.
My DHEA Research Findings
The very first thing I find startles me. I read that DHEA is banned by anti doping organizations in sports as an anabolic steroid. Also, it’s illegal to buy DHEA over the counter in the UK which seems really weird since it’s so easy to buy in the US. However this restriction also confirms to me that DHEA must really do something. If it were just another kooky supplement of questionable value, it wouldn’t be restricted like that. The thing that really set the alarm bells ringing in my head was “steroid?” Now I’m wondering if I’m going to get shrunken testes or fly into a ‘roid rage’ and it’s these worrying questions that edged me nervously forward into the murky world of DHEA documentation and guidance.
The site I looked at first was the top search result for ‘DHEA’ and it belongs to the Mayo Clinic (1). I thought for a minute and decided this felt like a reasonably trustworthy place to start. I mean it’s the prestigious Mayo Clinic, right? The article begins, “Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a hormone that your body naturally produces in the adrenal gland. DHEA helps produce other hormones, including testosterone and estrogen. Natural DHEA levels peak in early adulthood and then slowly fall as you age.” The article goes on to say that synthetic DHEA is available in various forms and is “used as an anti-aging therapy and to improve physical performance. DHEA is also used to treat depression and symptoms of menopause.” This statement is followed by a convincing list of scientific evidence that DHEA is an effective treatment for aging, depression, osteoporosis, and vaginal atrophy. This all sounds great, but then strangely they say that research actually showed mixed results and that most studies have shown that DHEA has no effect on muscle strength and physical performance. But then why, as the very next sentence reads “The National Collegiate Athletic Association has banned DHEA use among athletes.” So most studies show it does not work and yet it is a banned by sports organizations as a performance-enhancing substance? To me, this absolutely begs the question, If it doesn’t work, then why is it banned? They do not answer this question and the Mayo Clinic finishes with “Our Take” which amounts to, ‘don’t take DHEA, there is no evidence it really works and it can cause serious side effects.’ The end of the article goes on to list these possible side effects and interactions with other drugs.
The Disagreement on Defining DHEA
During my further research I would find that my biggest problem with the Mayo Clinic’s opinion stems from their supposition that “DHEA is a hormone.” – the very first sentence of the article. However the majority of other sources frame DHEA as a precursor molecule that can be turned into a hormone by the body but in itself is not a hormone. According to the USADA, “DHEA is a precursor molecule for the creation of other sex hormones, including testosterone and estrogen.”(2) So why do some sources like the USADA call DHEA a precursor molecule while others like the Mayo Clinic call it a hormone? Why the conflict? My own opinion, after much research, is that, like many scientific ‘disagreements’, it’s down to financial interest. DHEA supplementation can more safely, and with less expense, do what hormone replacement therapies do. It appears to me that the organizations who say “don’t take DHEA, it doesn’t work and it will probably hurt you” are the same ones that offer hormone therapies.
What Conditions Can DHEA Help With?
Because DHEA is turned into sex hormone by the body, DHEA supplementation can help with any condition caused by a lack of sex hormone. For a comprehensive list of all the things DHEA can treat, I am using the one found at Mt. Sinai’s website since it seemed to be the most inclusive. I rearranged the order only because theirs made no sense to me. Instead I tried to list the conditions in order of the most common and effective proven uses.
The reason menopause is the most common reason to take DHEA is probably obvious – every single woman experiences it and it is caused by low estrogen. Therefore DHEA, by increasing estrogen, can help offset perimenopausal symptoms. This is, by far, the number one thing that DHEA is used for but Mt. Sinai put it at the very bottom of their extensive list.
I put depression next because it ties into menopause in regards to mental and mood issues. A very good study showed that taking DHEA for depression in those aged 45-65 was very effective and worked as well for men as it did for women.
Improved Libido in Women
So many studies on this one. They basically make this stuff sound like an aphrodisiac for older women. Seriously though, men, do not surreptitiously slip your wife DHEA!
Apparently, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Older men may want to lay off the little blue pills and give DHEA a try. It’s cheaper, plus it won’t hurt your heart or potentially give you a priapism.
“Studies show DHEA helps reduce abdominal fat and improve insulin resistance. Other studies suggest that DHEA helps reduce inflammation in the arteries and reduce arterial stiffness.” Cool. I don’t know about my arteries but I personally lost fat and gained energy by taking DHEA.
“Preliminary studies suggest that DHEA may help reduce bone loss in older women”
The studies about DHEA and obesity show conflicting evidence. It’s probably because there are so many contributing factors that lead to obesity. I can only say that in my experience I lost the tiny bit of belly fat I had.
Some people are naturally deficient in DHEA due to problems with their adrenal glands, where DHEA is produced. Since they don’t have enough DHEA they don’t have enough hormones which leads to all the problems related to hormone deficiency: mood, fatigue, physical strength, sexual function and well being.
“Studies link low DHEA levels with an increase in heart disease” There is no research to prove that taking DHEA decreases the risk but I couldn’t find that it had actually ever been studied. Regardless, there is a direct correlation here.
Hasn’t this one been covered? Mt. Sinai adds that one women-only study in France suggested DHEA may slow bone loss, improve skin health, and improve sex drive.
DHEA helps lupus symptoms but can’t cure it. There have been several studies on this one.
Studies have shown DHEA improves mental function in people with HIV but it does not improve their immune function.
Warnings Against Taking DHEA
The many warnings given by the Mayo Clinic are echoed elsewhere so I will continue using them as a touchstone. Their first warning is that “Use of this supplement might increase levels of androgen and have a steroid effect.” (no mention here of it raising testosterone or estrogen). It continues, “DHEA also might increase the risk of hormone-sensitive cancers, including prostate, breast and ovarian cancers. If you have any form of cancer or are at risk of cancer, don’t use DHEA.” and “Don’t use DHEA if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.” It further warns that DHEA could “reduce good cholesterol, worsen psychiatric and mood disorders, and cause skin and hair problems.” Their final warning about DHEA is related to the possible interactions with other drugs – primarily drugs that treat mental and mood disorders. These interactions are all related to problems that might occur by getting too much estrogen or testosterone although they don’t state that directly. It is only at the very end of the article that they finally mention that DHEA shouldn’t be taken while taking testosterone and estrogen. Rather than state ‘because DHEA increases testosterone and estrogen,‘ they leave it up to the reader to logic out that the effects of hormone replacement therapy and DHEA would stack and you would end up with too much hormone. So while their warnings are technically legitimate they also seem intentionally confusing and a little disingenuous.
I was only taking 25mg a day, which is a low dose, and I still got results (at age 52). All the studies longer than one year have been on dosages from between 25-50mg per day and have shown DHEA is safe to take at these dosages for up to two years. Another 6 month study used a 100mg dosage on subjects aged 50-65. Other studies have used amounts up to 200mg. The need for different dosage amounts is likely down to the age of the person taking it. It makes sense that an older person might need a larger dosage than a younger person. When I use any drug or supplement, I always find the smallest amount that works and experiment from there. If a low dose works, why take more?
My Take on DHEA
Even though I think the Mayo Clinics’ take on DHEA was a little slanted, it was still a really good place to start. They presented much convincing evidence that DHEA aids several conditions as well as making a final pronouncement that DHEA is a dangerous hormone that shouldn’t be taken by anyone. This combination of positive research along with negative bias gave me a solid foundation for understanding the conflicting opinions regarding DHEA. It’s become clear to me that all these various points of view surrounding DHEA come down to who butters the writer’s bread. Meaning, if you’re on a website backed by a fitness guru or sports organization you get one point of view and if you are on a website aligned with a medical establishment that provides HRT you get another.
I see why DHEA is banned by sports organizations although I feel like calling it a steroid is kind of a stretch. My feeling overall, is that if you need more sex hormone, then DHEA looks like a much safer option than getting estrogen or testosterone in other ways. The reason it seems safer to me goes back to the idea that DHEA is a ‘precursor molecule’ as the USADA puts it and not technically a ‘hormone’ as the Mayo Clinic claims. The precursor factor is crucial to understanding how DHEA works and why it could be a good option. Personally, I would rather let my body turn DHEA into testosterone than take pure testosterone. Combine that with the fact that DHEA is turned into estrogen by women and it only further convinces me that DHEA is more of a safe supplement than a dangerous hormone.
DHEA is created in the adrenal gland and is the precursor chemical that can be turned into the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen. As people age their DHEA levels go down as do their levels of testosterone and estrogen. Taking DHEA can allow the body to make these hormones on its own and has been shown to help with a myriad of conditions related to low hormone levels. DHEA is a low cost and safer option to try before other hormone replacement therapies. Personally, I had a good experience taking 25mg for six months and I only stopped because I don’t feel I really need it yet. I enjoyed the slightly increased muscle tone, energy and mood but since long term use hasn’t been studied I think I’ll wait until I really feel I need it and be glad it’s waiting there for me.