A small but important study from Italy shows us how DHEA supplements can affect hormone levels in women.
Pluchino N, Ninni F et al, “One-year therapy with 10mg/day DHEA alone or in combination with HRT in postmenopausal women: Effects on hormonal milieu,” Maturitas 2008 Apr 2.
Considering how little real information we have had on the effects/side effects of appropriate DHEA supplementation on menopausal women, this great little study from Italy is a welcome addition to our DHEA knowledge bank.
The year-long study involved 32 healthy menopausal women ages 50 to 61. The goal was to find out more about how DHEA supplementation affects overall hormone levels.
What the study involved
Before treatment began, blood tests were done to measure DHEA, DHEAS, estradiol, estrone, testosterone, progesterone, androstenedione, allopregnanolone, cortisol, beta-endorphin and sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG). The researchers divided the women into two groups based on lower vs higher DHEA levels. This showed, not surprisingly since DHEA levels decline with age, that the group with the lower DHEA levels was, on average, older than the group with higher DHEA levels.
Then they divided the group with higher DHEA levels into two groups: Group A received 10 mg daily of DHEA and Group B received HRT—an estradiol patch delivering 0.05 mg of estradiol daily and 100 mg daily of oral micronized progesterone (natural progesterone in pill form). The women with low DHEA (group C) received a combination of DHEA and HRT.
Let’s look at the results by group:
Group A (DHEA only) showed a significant rise in DHEA, DHEAS, androstenedione and testosterone levels. There was a modest rise in estrogen, progesterone, allopregnanolone and beta-endorphin levels, and a significant drop in cortisol levels.
Group B (HRT only) showed only a slight (if any) rise in DHEA, DHEAS and testosterone levels, a modest rise in androstenedione and allopregnanlone levels, a significant rise in estrogen, progesterone, beta-endorphin and SHBG levels, and a modest drop in cortisol levels.
Group C (low baseline DHEA, DHEA + HRT treatment) showed a significant rise in DHEA, DHEAS, and androstenedione levels, a modest rise in testosterone levels, a significant rise in estrogen, progesterone, beta-endorphin and SHBG levels, a very slight increase in allopregnanolone.
It’s important to note that 10 mg of DHEA was enough to increase all hormone levels, particularly the androgens and estrogens. Past research on DHEA has been flawed by megadoses of DHEA—as much as 50 mg daily. It makes no sense to give women (or men) that much DHEA. Overdosing is probably why the results of DHEA research have been so inconsistent.
Among women taking DHEA only (Group A), DHEA levels rose, and then presumably spilled over, down the hormonal cascade to be made into the other hormones—except cortisol. DHEA is not a precursor of progesterone, but perhaps it supported the adrenals enough for progesterone to be made there.
The effects of DHEA were more significant among the younger women (group A) than the older women (group C). This may have to do with age, or the added HRT may have reduced the effects of the DHEA.
Perhaps the best news of this study is that the DHEA had the effect of significantly lowering cortisol levels. High cortisol is virtually endemic among menopausal women these days, which is a reflection of stressful lives. Chronic high cortisol increases the risk for breast cancer, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, glaucoma and neurodegenerative disease (e.g. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, MS).
Clearly the most significant effect of DHEA is increased androgen (male hormone) levels. This is a very small study, but it suggests that if our DHEA levels are low and cortisol levels are high, it might be beneficial to supplement with 5 or 10 mg of DHEA daily, particularly if you aren’t using bioidentical hormones. However, since DHEA can increase levels of other hormones significantly, it’s important to test your hormone levels regularly to maintain balance.
DHEA supplementation has received a lot of publicity for its supposed benefits, but it is not something to be taken lightly or without medical supervision and so testing for the appropriate levels is recommended, though this is not generally available on the NHS.
The following will be helpful if you want to know more about this steroid hormone.
What is DHEA?
Those initials stand for dehydroepiandrosterone and it is a steroid hormone synthesized from cholesterol and secreted by the adrenal glands. The average adult makes about 25 mg of DHEA per day with dwindling production as we get older. Men at all ages have more DHEA than women.
Natural DHEA production is at its highest in your twenties: by the time we reach seventy we only make about 20% of the DHEA we had when we were young. A decline in DHEA with the passage of time is clearly what nature intended — and as far as we know, a healthy process. This is only one of the major reasons self-prescribing DHEA is not recommended.
Another is that DHEA is a very powerful precursor to all of your major sex hormones: oestrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. It is the source that fuels the body’s metabolic pathway and among claims made for it are that it can improve sex drive, build muscle, fight the effects of aging, and improve some health conditions. But there isn’t much evidence for many of these claims. And the supplements have some risks.
Since DHEA levels decline with age, some researchers speculate that supplementing your body’s falling levels of the hormone might help fight aging. And some small studies have reported positive anti-aging effects from the use of DHEA supplements. But a similar number of studies have reported no effect.
According to the National Institute on Aging and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, there is not enough scientific evidence to support the idea that DHEA can affect how fast you age.
Both agencies report that little is known about the effect of long-term use of DHEA and there is some concern that continued use of DHEA supplements could be harmful.
Overuse has been linked to acne, a deepened voice, oily skin and even hair thinning and spots in particular are a sign that the DHEA is generating too many male hormones (androgens).
Hormone balance is about having oestrogen and progesterone at the right levels and the risk is that DHEA can create a surge in testosterone output. High levels of this hormone can lead to increased irritability, anxiety and even paranoia and rage, which is why testosterone and DHEA supplements should only be used under direct medical supervision.