What is DHEA?
Among the most popular supplements out there – protein powder, fish/krill oil, BCAAs and the like – you’ve probably encountered DHEA (or dehroepiandrosterone). It’s a hormone secreted by the various adrenal glands in the human kidneys, and it plays a major role in over 150 of the body’s metabolic functions.
DHEA is a precursor for male and female sex hormones because DHEA can be converted under the right conditions into either estrogen or testosterone. Because estrogen and testosterone drive many functions within the human body, DHEA is instrumental in muscle development, fat loss, sex drive, and a hundred or more other processes.
Because DHEA secretion and production peaks in your mid-20s and then begins to decline, supplementation is thought to provide a lot of benefits that assist with aging. Because DHEA hasn’t been studied as exhaustively as other hormones, scientists do not even know the full range of how it interacts with your other bodily systems, nor what its decline with age fully signifies.
Because scientists are aware of some of the most important facets of the hormone, the value of taking it as a supplement has been taken seriously for years now. At worst, there’s definitely a negative correlation between symptoms of aging and the reduction in available DHEA in the body. At best, DHEA supplementation shows promising results in multiple aspects of total well-being.
1. Muscle Development
Because DHEA can convert to testosterone, it’s heavily implicated in the growth and maintenance of muscle mass, particularly in the late teens and early 20s. Because of the fact that muscle development during this period can be significantly easier than it is earlier and later in life, there is strong evidence that points to high levels of DHEA as the cause.
2. Fat Loss
Since the body responds to high DHEA levels so well in terms of muscle building, it’s surprising that it also responds to DHEA by making your body better at burning fat. It’s often thought that the human body cannot build muscle while losing fat at the same time – these are both different processes, one relying on the breakdown of tissue and the other relying on the building of tissue. Regardless, DHEA supplementation strongly correlates with decreasing body fat, and that’s never a bad thing.
3. DHEA and Bone Loss
A prominent sign of aging – bone density loss – is also thought to be linked to chronic, low, DHEA levels. With low mineral density in your bones, you’re at a much greater risk of fracturing or breaking something, along with a much greater risk of osteoporosis. The one caveat about supplementing DHEA for bone loss, however, is that bone regeneration is a painfully slow process, so supplementation needs to be a long-term endeavor, if not a lifelong one.
4. Mental Health
While many risk-factors are implicated in the development of mental health disorders, low DHEA is among them and is fairly easy to fix with supplementation. Age-related cognitive decline seems to also have low DHEA as a contributing factor, as do many mood disorders. Finally, supplements have shown to have a positive impact on simple, everyday mood and energy levels, irrespective of pre-existing mental health disorders.
5. Heart Disease and Cancer
There is a definite link to lower levels of DHEA and the development of heart disease. While it’s known that DHEA can increase or imbalance levels of cholesterol in the blood, how it ultimately affects heart disease risk is still being studied.
A deficiency in DHEA, like a deficiency in estrogen, can be linked to the development of breast cancer. Because of its use in the easing of menopause symptoms, it’s also likely worth continuing supplementation if there’s even a small chance it could prevent breast cancer.
DHEA Side Effects
Because DHEA is a precursor hormone, it can help solve many problems associated with decreased hormone levels in the blood, which is great! It can, however, have some side effects associated with excess hormone levels, some of which include:
- Hair loss (in men and women)
- Menstrual changes
- Facial hair growth in women
- Deepening of the voice
- Fluctuations in fertility
Because of the fact that all of the potential effects of DHEA on the body aren’t fully understood, some other common side effects (due to the fact that this IS an adrenal hormone) are:
- Changes in serum cholesterol
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
A common side effect of supplementation is an upset stomach, which can sometimes lead to vomiting. This, however, can be offset by building up your dose slowly, taking it with food, and staying within your recommended dosage range. Finding the best DHEA supplement for you can take a bit of investigating, but it’s completely worth it in the long run.
Dosage is pretty straightforward for all age groups, though it differs between the sexes. A male over the age of 20 should supplement about 50mg of the best DHEA supplement available. It’s also reasonable that men under the age of 25 take 25mg, as the body’s creation of the hormone, is still upregulated until the mid-to-late 20s, and taking too much via supplementation will cause the body to produce less, which is a waste.
For women 20 or older, 25mg is sufficient. It is worth noting, however, that women who suffer from adrenal insufficiency, autoimmune disorders, or a nutrition deficit (as would be caused by bulimia or anorexia) should supplement 50mg instead. When selecting your product, keep in mind that the best DHEA supplement will have very little other ingredients – don’t buy something that combines DHEA with another hormone or chemical. Supplements like that only dilute the positive effects of both ingredients, rather than enhancing the efficacy of either.
How long does is take DHEA to work?
This isn’t as simple an answer as you might think, as multiple factors go into it. One of the main questions is whether or not your adrenal glands are fatigued already. If the output of DHEA is low, supplementation is a stopgap at best and at worst, it will still downregulate the natural production of the hormone, which will mean increasing supplementation to get meaningful results.
Assuming your adrenals are reasonably healthy, it then depends on what you’re taking the DHEA for, and the dosage. For mental health, it can work within days, elevating mood and lowering anxiety responses. The same can be said for lowering stress levels and helping to burn fat more quickly.
For something like bone loss or muscle development, it can take much longer, and even with the best DHEA supplement, everything will go faster if you also add in exercise. Weight training has a powerful impact on bone strength and of course muscle development, so combining it with the best DHEA supplement available to you will speed up the beneficial effects.
No matter what, it’s worth talking to a medical professional about supplementing DHEA, and seeing for yourself the myriad of health benefits it has to offer.