People usually think there are two types of steroids: potent anti-inflammatories and sex hormones.
However, steroids are much more than that, and there are other types.
DHEA is an example of a steroid hormone, and not everybody knows what it is and what it does.
The name is dehydroepiandrosterone. The androsterone part makes us think about testosterone and other androgens.
Thus, the question is whether or not DHEA can be helpful in men with low testosterone levels.
We’re covering the topic of DHEA in this article, with particular emphasis on men’s health. Besides talking about the benefits and how it works, we’re also discussing the side effects. Finally, we’re listing a few natural supplements we can use as an alternative.
What is DHEA?
DHEA is short for dehydroepiandrosterone. You can also find it as DHEAS, which is dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate.
It is a steroid hormone similar to testosterone, aldosterone, and cortisol. The name sounds like an androgen hormone, but it is not synthesized in the testes.
Instead, it is created in the adrenal glands, located on top of the kidneys. These glands produce other steroid hormones, especially aldosterone and cortisol.
Similar to testosterone and other hormones, DHEA levels decline as we age. Young people have the highest serum concentrations of DHEA when they are around 20 years of age. Then, the adrenal glands release 10% less DHEA every ten years. That leaves you with 10-20% DHEA when you reach 70 or 80 years old (1).
It is essential to highlight that, contrary to testosterone, both men and women synthesize DHEA. It is the most abundant precursor of sex hormones in women. As such, it has been used in hormone therapy for women and as a biomarker of aging.
In short, DHEA is a precursor of many other hormones. As such, it can be helpful in both males al females, as you will see next.
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How does it work?
The best way to describe how DHEA works is by traveling along with it throughout the body.
Let’s start with cholesterol, which is regarded as a bad thing for most people, but it is not necessarily so. A molecule of cholesterol reaches the adrenal glands, and through a series of chemical changes, it is converted into DHEA. The exact process happens in other organs, including the gonads and the adipocytes (2).
Once cholesterol converts into DHEA, the steroid hormone has many functions. One of them is transforming itself into testosterone or estrogen, depending on if you’re a male or a female.
That’s why it is also known as DHEA testosterone. It could also reach the brain as DHEA and before converting into sex hormones. Once in the brain, it has an anti-inflammatory effect, protects the nervous system, and promotes nerve function (3).
We need more research to understand what DHEA does and how. But it has become popular due to a wide array of benefits.
For example, it is known that DHEA improves physical performance. It does so through modifications in the nervous system and testosterone levels. Thus, many athletes started using DHEA, and it was banned as a doping substance by the World Anti-Doping Agency (4).
Still, DHEA testosterone is a legal supplement and can be used in creams or taken in oral tablets depending on the effect you’re after.
What are the benefits of DHEA supplements?
The benefits of DHEA supplements are mainly based on observational scientific evidence. In some cases, clinical trials have also tested DHEA. Still, and even though there is a lot of study around the topic, we don’t know much about DHEA.
So far, the list of benefits include:
Improvements in bone density
People with low DHEA levels usually have low levels of bone density, too. However, this could be a secondary consequence of aging and not directly a problem with DHEA.
That’s why recent studies evaluated the effect of DHEA supplementation in patients with bone density problems. The study revealed that DHEA could improve bone density and protect bones. However, this effect is more common in women after their menopause (5).
Reducing depression symptoms
We mentioned that one of the routes of DHEA is reaching the brain. Once in the brain, it has many functions. One of them is balancing brain chemistry.
According to a review of the scientific evidence, DHEA supplements can be helpful to treat depression. It works with mild depression and cases that do not improve with conventional therapy.
Still, the evidence is insufficient to prescribe DHEA as standardized therapy. As of now, it is only recommended as adjuvant therapy (6).
Treating adrenal insufficiency
DHEA is mainly produced in the adrenal glands. They make other steroid hormones, including aldosterone and cortisol. When the adrenal glands do not produce enough hormones, we call this problem adrenal insufficiency.
In these patients, DHEA is very low, and a supplement can help them achieve normal levels. The main benefits after supplementation in this group include improvements in mood and sexual health (7).
Changes in body composition
Some researchers have found that people taking DHEA supplementation have changes in body composition.
The changes are mild and do not mean that DHEA promotes weight loss, but they are significant. Body composition is the proportion of fat and muscle mass we have.
In general, lower fat levels and higher levels of muscle mass are recommended for better health (8).
Can DHEA Supplements Increase Men’s Testosterone Levels?
DHEA by itself has some androgenic activity. It behaves similar to testosterone in specific tissues. This androgenic activity is very weak and not considered in most cases, though. It is also a pro-hormone, a precursor of testosterone in males.
In other words, DHEA transforms into testosterone, and when it does, the androgenic activity is very high.
First, DHEA converts into androstenedione. Then, androstenedione converts to testosterone and dihydrotestosterone (DHT).
Thus, as a precursor of testosterone and having similar symptoms at a low level, many researchers have tested DHEA supplements to boost testosterone in males.
What the research says
A recent review and meta-analysis used data from 42 publications and condensed the eligible trials and their results.
They analyzed the effects of DHEA over testosterone levels in several subgroups, including women, healthy males, and men with low testosterone levels.
This is what they found (9):
- In the overall meta-analysis, plasma testosterone levels increased after DHEA supplementation.
- In the subgroup analysis, all subgroups also experienced an increase in testosterone.
- Females had a higher increase in testosterone than men.
- A higher dose of DHEA (more than 50 mg a day) had a more significant increase in plasma testosterone.
Ironically, women had a higher response to DHEA than males in terms of testosterone levels. However, this is because males produce more testosterone elsewhere. This creates a confounder that obscures the effects of DHEA supplements.
In a nutshell, men with low androgen levels may benefit from DHEA supplements. The increase is more prominent in a dose higher than 50 mg a day. However, it is also important to say that higher doses are more likely to cause side effects.
So far, DHEA has proven to be relatively safe, and the side effects are not usually severe or life-threatening.
However, there is a lot we don’t know about this supplement, and we require more safety clinical trials.
So far, it has been tested in doses as high as 1600 mg a day. The longest time it has been tested has been two years, and it was not found to be a dangerous supplement.
Still, many patients will experience side effects, especially at a higher dose. They include (10):
A reduction in HDL cholesterol
This type of cholesterol particle takes fat from the blood vessels and clears the body from plaques. Thus, it is good cholesterol.
DHEA reduces HDL cholesterol when taken in very high doses. Testosterone has the same effect. Therefore, some people argue that DHEA only causes a reduction of HDL cholesterol after converting into testosterone.
This is another side effect of testosterone in both men and women. There’s an increased production of sebum in the skin. This oily secretion creates a clog in your pores and slowly favors infection and acne.
Some patients develop changes in heart frequency and feel palpitations. This effect is also similar to that of testosterone.
Worsening symptoms in patients with liver disease
The liver processes DHEA supplements. Thus, patients with liver disease and slow liver processing should be careful around DHEA. It could worsen the symptoms and create complications in these individuals.
It is also important to note that DHEA interacts with other medications processed by the liver. Therefore, it is better to consult your doctor if you take medicines such as antipsychotics, antidepressants, and anxiolytics.
Other natural supplements to increase testosterone levels
Vitamins and minerals
A vitamin or mineral deficiency causes several problems. One of them is low testosterone levels. Supplementation in these cases normalizes the cause of low testosterone and brings back normal levels.
Thus, keep a healthy level of vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin D, selenium, and zinc. Each one contributes to testosterone synthesis in its way.
These supplements also contribute to normalizing testosterone levels. But they are different from others.
Boron uncouples testosterone from its transporters in the blood. Coupled with a transporter, testosterone remains inactive.
Thus, by increasing the rate of free testosterone, boron increases the effects of this hormone without causing an alteration in normal levels.
Ginger is an excellent testosterone booster, especially if you’re trying to conceive. It increases the quality of sperm and has been used as an aphrodisiac by different traditions.
This testosterone booster increases free testosterone levels. It also induces changes in bone mass and body composition. However, you should use the supplement for at least 12 weeks to see favorable results.
This supplement does not act directly on the testes. Instead, it promotes the release of follicle-stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone. They both operate on the testes and stimulate the synthesis of testosterone and sperm cells.
Thus, it is recommended only for patients with a secondary cause of low testosterone. That is when their testes are entirely healthy and functional.
Our testosterone supplement, Testo Booster, contains ingredients clinically proven to naturally increase testosterone levels, boost sex drive, improve blood flow, and provide stronger erections.
In placebo-controlled human trials studying the ingredients in Testo Booster, participants experienced a significant improvement in erectile function, libido, and sexual health.
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Double-blind clinical studies show that the active ingredients in Male Boost can increase free testosterone. This suggests that these compounds may be effective for muscle growth and maintaining healthy testosterone levels.
DHEA administration is currently under study and in constant debate. It has weak androgenic activity and converts into testosterone in the body.
DHEA levels decrease as we grow older, along with other hormone levels. Thus, DHEA treatment can be an alternative to testosterone replacement therapy. It is also useful for postmenopausal women with vaginal atrophy and sexual dysfunction.
In males, it may correct mild or moderate androgen deficiency. It stimulates the production of the male hormone and may solve a few problems caused by low testosterone.
While it is not a supplement for erectile dysfunction, it could be helpful depending on the cause. It increases skeletal muscle mass and improves insulin sensitivity after converting into testosterone.
Lower DHEA levels usually correlate with low blood levels of total testosterone. Thus, supplementation may stimulate testosterone production.
However, there is still much research before recommending DHEA as a standard treatment for patients with low testosterone.
Nevertheless, we can use it so far as adjuvant therapy, and it may correct the problem in mild and moderate cases.