DHEA is a natural mild androgen (male hormone) that is sold in the United States as a nutritional supplement. The annual sale of DHEA reached $55 million in 2009, according to Nutrition Business Journal. Surprisingly, men are not the only consumers of DHEA supplements, even though DHEA is an androgen—but why do women take DHEA?
There may be several reasons, and they relate to DHEA’s conversion into estrogen. Both in men and women, DHEA is the most abundant hormone in the body and plays an important role in the synthesis of male and female sex hormones. In other words, DHEA is needed by both sexes, and for women, it’s an important step that cannot be skipped when the body synthesizes estrogen from cholesterol.
Because DHEA, as well as estrogen, are known to decrease in the body as women age, some researchers think that supplementing with DHEA may help women cope with issues that arise naturally with aging, including decline in skin condition, decrease in sexual function and so on. Many of DHEA’s suggested benefits for women—some of which have more support in the literature than others—derive from the fact that DHEA is converted into estrogen in the body.
One surprising aspect of possible benefits of DHEA for women is its fertility benefit. In this regard, it appears that DHEA’s benefit derives not from its conversion into estrogen, but into testosterone. According to a series of research papers about DHEA and women’s fertility published by the Center for Human Reproduction (CHR), testosterone, converted by the body from DHEA, helps women over 40 get pregnant faster by working on androgen receptors found in eggs in the ovaries. CHR’s research suggest that eggs need a certain amount of testosterone when they go through the maturation process, and supplementing with DHEA can maintain that healthy level of testosterone in the ovaries.
This might sound counterintuitive, considering that testosterone in women is usually considered a bad thing: for example, women with PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) often have problems from their abnormally high testosterone levels. This is also still an emerging area of fertility research. However, human research by CHR and other fertility centers, as well as some animal data seem to suggest that even in women, a healthy level of androgens is necessary for normal fertility.
Finally, a word of caution: Although a significant number of fertility centers now use DHEA for women who are trying to get pregnant with low ovarian reserve, women should discuss DHEA supplementation with their physicians first.