In recent years, the topic of DHEA for women during and after menopause seems to get the most press, however this hormone plays a key role in both genders.
In fact, it was because of men who were using it for purported athletic benefits which led to the NCAA banning DHEA supplements. Not because it was considered unsafe in the degree that illegal anabolic steroids are, but because it may offer an unfair advantage for muscle growth and improving physical ability.
How it works
Dihydroepiandrosterone, which is commonly called natural DHEA, is mostly produced by your adrenal glands, though other parts of the body make it too including the testicles or ovaries, brain, skin, and even the retinas of your eyes. No other circulating steroidal hormone is seen in greater amounts.
Despite how prevalent it is in our bodies, scientists are still trying to understand its many uses and benefits.
One thing we do know is that it’s a precursor for making our sex hormones testosterone and estrogen (estrone, estradiol).
Because of this, many men believe it to be a superior testosterone booster. We see countless conversations on bodybuilding forums about DHEA boosting foods. One guy was claiming ghee, coconut oil, and raw butter were his “paleo diet secret fountain of youth.”
There is a secret there and it’s this… that guy has no idea he’s an idiot.
But we’re referencing his food list being idiotic, not the actual concept that DHEA can increase testosterone levels. Yes, healthy testosterone levels may produce what many would call anti aging benefits in men.
DHEA vs. testosterone (or estrogen)
Actual testosterone is a controlled substance under the Anabolic Steroids Control Act and for good reason… it’s definitely not healthy for you. If someone receives too much, a whole slew of terrible side effects can result. Just look at the professional bodybuilders who have died from heart attacks in their 30’s and 40’s.
The use of testosterone injections can only make sense in certain medical situations, when there is a doctor carefully overseeing the dosage and monitoring what happens.
On the other hand, since DHEA is the precursor and not actual testosterone, many theorize that it means our body will “use what it needs” to make more testosterone, while discarding the rest. In other words, if we have unusually low testosterone levels due to aging, this ingredient may be what’s needed in the recipe to make more testosterone naturally. Possibly replenishing some of what was lost, without a testosterone overdose. At least that’s the theory.
Contrast that to actual testosterone, which if added to our body, we would be forced to use, even if our natural levels were good to begin with. Side effects of that can include liver disease, kidney disease, increased aggression, shrinking of testicles, infertility, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Those are just a few of the things which can happen with illegal anabolic steroid use (testosterone).
When it comes to women’s health, many hold the same theory but for the production of estrogen. By serving as its precursor, DHEA might provide a missing component the woman’s body needs to naturally make healthy levels of estrogen again.
Similar to upping the consumption of phytoestrogen foods, many women are turning to alleged natural sources of DHEA to offset their drop in hormone production from menopause. As far as foods with DHEA in them, many are claiming that Mexican wild yams and soybeans are excellent sources… what if those are a myth?
The evidence for benefits
Herbal remedies which are foreign to our body often have little to no evidence to back their alleged benefits.
On the other hand, this hormone is naturally found in everyone. Men and women, young and old.
However natural production peaks in our late teens or early 20’s and from there, it’s a downhill ride (1). Is it just a coincidence that the ages in which we have optimal health – including better physical stamina and sex drive – are also the ages when our DHEA was higher?
Does DHEA increase testosterone?
Upon reviewing 18 different human studies which used supplements, two-thirds (12 studies) reported an increase in testosterone levels while one-third (6 studies) did not (2). There appears to be a correlation with age, where studies looking at younger men (late teens, early 20’s) are less likely to experience a change, while increased levels appear to be more likely with the studies involving men in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s.
Does DHEA work at all in young men? Some studies suggest it does. One involving twenty 19 to 22 year old soccer players claimed the “treatment with DHEA resulted in a significant increase of total testosterone.” (3)
Does DHEA increase estrogen?
Out of 14 human studies, approximately 70% of them (10 studies) reported that it did raise estrogen levels, while 30% (4 studies) said it did not (4).
Unlike the research for men with different age groups, almost all of the studies for women involved those going through menopause or who were post menopausal; mid 40’s to mid 60’s. Does DHEA work in young and earlier middle-aged women seems to be an even harder question to answer.
How it might affect health
Is DHEA good for you? Even if it can raise levels of the two aforementioned hormones, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will have a safe and healthy effect.
Yes, there has been research which suggests for women, it might improve rates of pregnancy (5) (6). For men, that it might boost nitric oxide levels, which is of particular interest to athletes, bodybuilders, and those suffering from erectile dysfunction (7). However you can’t claim it’s good for you regarding those issues, because they have even less research and some suggests it actually doesn’t work for those.
Rather than focus on the more speculative benefits, let’s take a look at those which are considered most likely, according to a couple very reputable authorities; Mayo Clinic and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) MedlinePlus.
What Mayo Clinic says
In their drugs and supplements database, they use the following key to grade the evidence of benefits:
A = strong scientific evidence
B = good scientific evidence
C = unclear scientific evidence
There is also D and E, which corresponds to research showing that it does not work for a claimed benefit.
For DHEA supplementation they give the A grade for bone density, depression, and weight loss. The B grade is given for libido, erectile dysfunction, and lupus (8). Neither the A’s or B’s are guarantees, but those conclusions are still encouraging.
C is assigned to a laundry list of alleged claims, including aging (age related declines in physical function), HIV/AIDs (boosting immune function to slow progression), infertility, skin aging, Crohn’s disease, and several others.
What MedlinePlus says
This is the National Institutes of Health’s website for consumers. Being that it’s the U.S. federal government, as you can imagine the standards are extremely high.
For what seems like the vast majority of dietary supplements, they’re quite skeptical and express negative opinions. Even when other highly reputable sources say a given benefit exists, MedlinePlus will often say the opposite – that proof isn’t there.
Considering their extreme conservatism, what do they say about the benefits of DHEA? It’s actually surprising (9).
They report it’s “possibly effective for” aging skin, citing research that when taken orally, in older people it has been found to increase hydration and thickness. Furthermore, they mention that for postmenopausal women, there is research showing that a topical DHEA skincare product used for 4 months was found to improve appearance.
They also say it’s “possibly effective for” depression. While they do point out that dosages of 5 to 20 mg per day did not show results, it is said that “most research” shows 30 to 500 mg per day of DHEA supplements “improves symptoms of depression.”
As what is more typically their style, for a couple dozen other suspected benefits, they categorize as “insufficient evidence to rate effectiveness for.”
They categorize it as “possibly ineffective for” physical performance but in the very next sentence, admit that “some research suggests” it does increase muscle in older adults.
Best DHEA foods?
While it is true we have a lot to learn about this precursor to estrogen and testosterone, increasing DHEA levels naturally at 60, 70, or even 30 years of age is something of interest to many. Even though the evidence isn’t there yet, optimists believe it may be one of the keys in anti-aging.
As a result, you will see all sorts of articles about what are believed to be natural sources of this steroid.
We already mentioned Mexican wild yams, which is probably the most cited rich food source. After that, it seems to be soy and eggs. Some hype up much more exotic edibles, like evening primrose oil and fish oil (cod liver and salmon, in particular). Ayurvedic herbs you probably never have heard of – like tribulis terristris and tongkat ali – are recommended by some alternative medicine practitioners.
While you can’t tell from the summaries we gave, neither Mayo Clinic or MedlinePlus referenced using vegetables or herbs like those to increase DHEA. They were referencing actual manufactured supplements or pharmaceutical versions.
Why is that? Because there is no such thing as DHEA food sources!
It’s true the legitimate, best supplements you can buy really will contain it (more on that below). But as far as foods containing DHEA, there’s literally no such thing.
How the Mexican yam myth started
Part of how rumors spread is because we want to believe them, right?
In the case DHEA boosters, there is actually an ounce of truth in how that dietary advice began.
Does wild yam contain DHEA? No, but a chemical which comes from the plant is used to create it in the laboratory.
The chemical diosgenin is isolated from the bulb and roots of the yam. After that, it undergoes chemical reactions to be made into the human hormone, they are molecularly identical. It is also used to make estrogen.
As a result, people thought that if they ate this natural food, they too would get some of the hormone but in a less concentrated amount.
The problem with this logic is that there is zero DHEA in wild yams. It is the chemical diosgenin which is isolated and then converted to the hormone through laboratory processes. Those same processes are not taking place in the human body, nor is there any research to suggest they can.
In short, human bodies can’t convert diosgenin to DHEA.
The origin of the soybean story is similar.
Prior to the 1940’s, we didn’t know how to create steroidal hormones for medical use. Instead, we had to extract them from the glands of mammals, which was not an easy thing to do.
Then in 1943, a chemist named Russell E. Marker found a way to convert diosgenin to the steroid progesterone. He accomplished this using what we call the Mexican wild yam. It’s also known as the root of the barbasco plant (Dioscorea mexicana) and can be found growing in Mexican jungles. In the two decades which followed, researchers found ways to synthesize other hormones from this root, including this one.
Realizing how lucrative of an industry this was, in the 1970’s Mexican President Luis Echeverría decided to nationalize this species of yam. That blocked all exports. Cultivating it in other countries wasn’t a viable work around, because no one was having luck doing so.
After blocking exports, he jacked up the prices of its refined active ingredient (diosgenin) by nearly 300%.
Well, the Mexicans shot themselves in the foot with that move. By making it unaffordable, they forced American ingenuity to find an alternative.
What scientists came up with was something that America grows plenty of… soy. The stigmasterol from soybeans is used to manufacture most hormones today. The best DHEA supplements use it, too.
But eating tofu, tempeh, edamame, or any other food source of soy will not work. As with the yams, the processes in the laboratory are a far cry from the human digestive system. We can’t make this hormone by eating soy.
As far as the other sources you hear some claim, like fish oil and eggs, their ties to the history of the hormone are even more far flung. Most others have absolutely no connection at all. Like not knowing the difference between DHEA vs. DHA in fish oil (the latter is omega 3, not a hormone).
The bottom line is that there is no such thing as foods high in DHEA. Nor low in it. It doesn’t matter if your diet is whole foods or Ayurvedic herbs… it is impossible to obtain this hormone from what you eat.
Can you buy DHEA over the counter?
We all know testosterone and estrogen aren’t exactly things you can pick up at CVS next to the Tylenol and Advil. They’re highly regulated and only administered by medical doctors in select circumstances.
Can you get DHEA without a prescription? Yep.
You may be surprised to hear that buying it is no different than picking up a bottle of multivitamins or calcium chews. You have Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah to thank for that.
Previously, it was banned in 1985 by the FDA. Nearly a decade later in 1994, it was available again over the counter, thanks to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994.
Then at the turn of the century, lawmakers tried to get it banned again as part of a more comprehensive law against steroid use.
This was when Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire were making headlines on what seemed like a daily basis, for setting some new world record. Steroid use was out of control not just in baseball, but almost every major sport. Lance Armstrong is just one other example of the many out there.
Senator Hatch was fine with the proposed bill, except for the part banning DHEA. Perhaps no other politician was at the forefront of nutritional and supplement science like he was. He felt strongly that given its possible anti aging benefits, it must be kept legal. Senator Hatch was willing to sink the whole bill if they banned it.
As they say, the rest is history. Hatch got his way.
Naturally increasing DHEA levels at age 60 (about how old Hatch was back then) or any other age is possible, without a prescription. This is because it remains categorized as a dietary supplement, which you can legally buy over the counter. However as with any dietary supplement, you should first consult your doctor and get their guidance before using it.
In addition to post menopausal women, you hear about men in their 30’s and 40’s starting on it. Even bodybuilders in their 20’s are known to use it, in hopes that it will boost testosterone.
There are many manufacturers who sell it. Here are some examples of different DHEA dosages available:
- Natrol 25mg tablets, 300 count
- Zhou Nutrition 50 mg capsules, 50 count
- aSquared Nutrition 100 mg capsules, 200 count
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.