Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a precursor to testosterone and estrogen produced by the adrenal glands. There are definite pros and cons for the use of DHEA for women. Some of the positive reasons for taking this hormone may include improved energy, increased spinal bone density, easing of menopausal symptoms, and increased libido. The negative aspects of DHEA for women may include growth of facial hair, a deepening voice, an increased risk of breast cancer or heart disease, and acne and skin thickening. DHEA supplements are not generally recommended by doctors, and those who do prescribe them do so at much lower doses.
DHEA is at its highest when a person is in her 20s, and it declines with age. Scientists do not know exactly why this happens, but some think supplementing with the hormone may reduce the effects of aging. As part of a study done by the Mayo Clinic, men and women age 60 and over took DHEA for two years. Even though the participants' DHEA blood levels were comparable to those of a young adult, none of the test subjects showed improvement in insulin sensitivity, quality of life, percentage of body fat or physical performance, all of which are hallmarks of aging. Some nutritional companies still insist that this hormone will turn back the hands of time, but there is not much evidence to support this broad claim.
Increased energy and well-being may be a positive effect of DHEA for women. The University of Maryland Medical Center found that DHEA raised energy levels of women with chronic fatigue syndrome. The women in the study took 50 to 200 mg of DHEA daily. Research done by the University of Michigan Health System found that women with documented adrenal insufficiency and depleted DHEA levels may benefit from a 50-mg supplement every day.
Improved spinal bone density may be another good reason to recommend DHEA for women. Saint Louis University carried out a two-year study on the effects of DHEA on the bone density of the spine. The study revealed that bone density of study participants increased by 2 percent when DHEA was taken with vitamin D and calcium supplements. NYU Langone Medical Center found that the hormone might be beneficial for women over 70 who are fighting osteoporosis. It may also help prevent osteoporosis in women of all ages with anorexia.
DHEA for women may ease symptoms of menopause. The University of Michigan Health System found that DHEA for women particularly helps reduce the symptoms of emotional lability, or sudden mood swings, such as crying for no apparent reason. They hypothesize that the hormone allows the brain to be more responsive to a woman's natural endorphins—the "feel-good" hormones. Researchers caution that using the hormone for menopausal symptoms should only be done under the supervision of a doctor.
The New England Journal of Medicine reported on a German study in which scientists looked at the effects of DHEA on libido in women diagnosed with adrenal insufficiency. After four months of treatment with 50 mg of daily DHEA, the women reported a stronger sex drive and greater satisfaction as well as fewer episodes of anxiety and other psychological issues.
The downside of DHEA for women was evident in this German study when about 20 percent of participants reported side effects of acne, oily skin, unwanted body hair, and some loss of hair on the head. Most studies show side effects appear when women take 25 to 50 mg of the supplement per day. With 100 mg per day, the voice may deepen and facial hair may become thicker. Even higher doses may cause liver damage, an increased risk of breast or ovarian cancer, and heart disease. Interestingly, researchers who ran the two-year Mayo Clinic study found no side effects that they considered clinically significant.
Most doctors discourage the use of DHEA for women unless there is a documented hormonal deficiency. Alternative health care practitioners who prescribe DHEA recommend much lower doses than are available over-the-counter. Women often begin with a prescription of just 5 mg per day. Both conventional and alternative doctors advise taking the supplement only under the supervision of a medical professional.