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DHEA: May Improve Sexual and Mental Health

What the Study Showed
How it was Done
Why It's Important
Additional Findings

What the Study Showed
In this 1999 German study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, investigators found that
DHEA supplements lessened depression and anxiety in women with a deficiency in the secretion of adrenal gland hormones, a condition known as adrenal insufficiency. The supplements also significantly improved their sexual health and overall well-being.

How it was Done
The researchers recruited 24 women between the ages of 23 and 59 with adrenal insufficiency involving a deficiency in DHEA specifically. (The adrenal glands normally secrete large amounts of DHEA, or dehydroepiandonsterone.) The women either received 50 mg DHEA or a
Placebo every day for four months, followed by one month in which they took nothing. They then switched groups for another four months, with those who had taken the DHEA receiving the placebo and vice versa.

The study was double-blinded; neither the investigators nor the participants knew which pill they were taking. Before the study began and at intervals during the study and afterwards, the women received a physical exam and had blood taken to measure, among other things, cholesterol and other blood lipids and hormones. As part of the psychological evaluation, investigators kept track of each woman's mood, level of anxiety or depression, and sense of well-being and sexual health.

Why It's Important
Much has been claimed but little has been proven about DHEA supplements, and this study is one of the first to shed some light on the role that the
Hormone plays in the human body. Most importantly, the findings suggest that taking DHEA supplements may, indeed, boost adrenal gland hormones to normal levels in women who suffer from adrenal insufficiency. In a larger sense, this finding may also have implications for normal, healthy individuals without adrenal insufficiency because, as people age, DHEA secretion in the body declines.

While the researchers are still not sure how DHEA works to provide psychological benefits, the evidence from the study was clear: DHEA improved the women's sense of well-being and lessened their depression and anxiety. The women taking DHEA also had more frequent sexual thoughts and fantasies and their sexual interest improved.

The DHEA may work via a direct effect on the nervous system, or because DHEA is converted to androgens (a male sex hormone linked to libido), or both. The benefits, however, were only seen after four months of treatment, not after just one month. The researchers speculate that this may explain why DHEA showed no benefit in healthy subjects who took the supplement for only two weeks in other studies.

Additional Findings
There were some unwanted side effects associated with DHEA. For example, while total cholesterol levels declined with DHEA supplements, so did the levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol. The drop in HDL may be due to the DHEA-linked increase in androgen; this male hormone is known to reduce HDL levels.

In addition, some of the women experienced side effects that included greasy skin, acne, and a growth of body hair. The researchers suggest that more studies need to be done to evaluate the long-term safety of DHEA supplementation. In addition, women with hormone-related diseases, such as breast cancer, should probably avoid DHEA.

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by Wiebke Arlt, Frank Callies, Jan Cristoph Van Vligman, Ines Kohler, Martin Reincke, Martin Bidlingmaaier, Doris Huebler, Michael Oettel, et.al.

Date Published: 4/25/2000
Date Reviewed: 1/12/2006


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