DHEA chemical structure

DHEA and Diabetes: Is Supplementation Worth the Hype?

DHEA supplements have been touted for their potential to improve many different health conditions. Some have even gone so far as to call DHEA “the fountain of youth” because of its anti-aging properties. But is this supplement worth the hype?

Let’s take a look at the science behind DHEA, the implications for DHEA and diabetes, and how we can naturally increase DHEA without a synthetic supplement.

What is DHEA?

You may be wondering “what even is DHEA?” And I think that is a great place to start this conversation. DHEA stands for dehydroepiandrosterone. Whoa, that’s a mouthful! Basically, it is a hormone that your body produces naturally.

Hormones are responsible for coordinating all kinds of processes in your body. This particular hormone helps in the production of other hormones, specifically the sex hormones, testosterone and estrogen.

So if your body naturally produces DHEA, why would you need to take it as a supplement? Well, DHEA levels peak at about 30 years of age and steadily decrease throughout your lifetime (1). Researchers have associated this decrease in DHEA with many chronic diseases, including Type 2 Diabetes. 

What is the Function of DHEA?

DHEA doesn’t do much on its own. Its main function is as a precursor to other hormones. Essentially, a precursor is a substance from which another substance is formed. So DHEA exists primarily to support the production of testosterone and estrogen (2).

Both testosterone and estrogen play a role in the growth, development, and functioning of the human reproductive system. They also influence factors such as bone density, fat distribution, and muscle mass. 

So let’s dive in and take a look at the reasons why someone may have abnormal levels of DHEA in their system.

Causes of Low DHEA

  • Advanced age
  • Anorexia (lack of appetite)
  • Some chronic conditions (Type 2 Diabetes, adrenal insufficiency, AIDS, kidney disease)
  • Some medications (insulin, metformin, opiates, corticosteroids, antipsychotics, birth control pills or estrogen, etc.)

Causes of High DHEA

  • Adrenal gland disorders
  • An adrenal gland tumor
  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)
  • Some medications (Xanax, Amlodipine, Ritalin, Procardia, Cardizem, etc.)

DHEA Supplements

Although the body produces DHEA naturally, many people are curious about DHEA supplements. Let’s take a look at some of the details.

Types of DHEA supplements

  • Topical – Applied on the outside of the body
  • Oral – Pill taken by mouth
  • Sublingual – Tablet that dissolves under the tongue
  • Chewing gum
  • Drops

Dosage

There is no standard dosage for DHEA. Studies that have researched the effects of DHEA have ranged from 25 to 500 milligrams per day. Always discuss dosage with your doctor, as it will vary depending on the condition you are trying to treat. 

DHEA Supplementation Risks and Benefits

Potential Benefits

  1. Anti-aging

Oral or topical DHEA is potentially effective at improving the appearance of aging skin in people aged 60 or older. It does not appear to have any effects on other signs or symptoms of aging.

  1. Treatment for Depression

Physicians could potentially use DHEA to treat symptoms of depression if other medications do not work well.

  1. Improved Bone Density

Some research shows promising effects on bone density in older adults with osteoporosis and in young women. But other studies do not show any impact on post-menopausal women.

  1. Weight Loss 

DHEA may aid in weight loss and improve body composition by reducing abdominal fat.

  1. Menopause Treatment

DHEA may reduce uncomfortable symptoms during menopause, such as hot flashes. (12)

Potential Risks

  1. Mild and Severe Side Effects

Supplementing with synthetic DHEA has been associated with many side effects, including the following: headache, fatigue, insomnia, congestion, mood changes, acne, facial hair in women, high blood pressure, respiratory failure, chest pain, dizziness, anxiety, etc.

  1. Decreased Natural Hormone Production

DHEA supplementation may encourage your body to stop producing the hormone naturally. This leads to long-term dependence on synthetic hormones.

  1. Increased Risk of Some Cancers

DHEA increases levels of estrogen and testosterone in the body, so you should not take it if you are at high risk for cancer or if you have a history of hormone-sensitive cancers (breast cancer or prostate cancer, for example).

  1. Interactions with Other Medications

DHEA can interact with or reduce the effectiveness of many medications, including the following: many blood pressure drugs, metformin, birth control pills or estrogen, antidepressants, antipsychotics, anti-seizure drugs, sedatives, etc. (5, 13)

DHEA and Diabetes

Some studies on mice have shown that DHEA supplementation has the potential to increase insulin production and the body’s ability to use insulin (insulin sensitivity). DHEA has also shown the potential to decrease the production of glucose by the liver (8, 9).

However, other studies show that DHEA supplementation had little to no impact on insulin resistance or blood glucose levels (6, 10, 11).

There is consensus among many medical organizations that people with diabetes should avoid using DHEA. And if you are going to use it, proceed with caution because of the potential risks and interactions (2, 5, 12, 13).

How to increase DHEA naturally

Increasing DHEA Naturally

Increasing DHEA through food

You may be wondering if you can consume DHEA naturally through your diet, but there are no naturally occurring foods that provide DHEA. Some foods do contain miniscule amounts of hormone-like substances, such as butter or eggs, but these do not necessarily raise blood levels of DHEA (4).

However, some foods do support the body’s production of this hormone. DHEA is formed from cholesterol, so consuming foods that support healthy levels of cholesterol production may also support DHEA production. These foods would include healthy fats, like avocados, olive oil, nuts and seeds, and fatty fish. 

Increasing DHEA through lifestyle

Other ways that you can support healthy hormone levels include the following:

  • Reduce stress to lower inflammation
  • Prioritize sleep
  • Exercise daily
  • Get outside to support vitamin D production

Each of these action steps can encourage your body’s natural production of hormones, including DHEA.

Bottom Line on DHEA and Diabetes

Although there is some potential for DHEA and diabetes management, more research is needed to truly understand the effects of DHEA supplementation on blood sugar and insulin resistance (6).

At this point in time, the research is limited and inconclusive on the benefits of taking this hormone in a synthetic form. 

There are many other methods of reducing insulin resistance and managing blood sugar that are better supported by the research, such as a consistent carb diet including high fiber and nutrient dense food choices. Read more about choosing high fiber foods and nutritious carb choices.

Conclusion

Despite DHEA being discovered more than 50 years ago, there are still a lot of unknowns surrounding the benefits and risks of supplementation (3). The long-term safety of DHEA supplementation has not been well researched (7, 5).

Individuals under the age of 40 should not take DHEA supplements unless their blood levels are low (less than 130mg/dL in women and less than 180mg/dL in men) (5). If you do decide that supplementation is necessary after having your blood tested, it should be done under the supervision of a physician with blood levels being monitored regularly.

Supporting your body’s natural production of DHEA, through the healthy habits described above, is a better option for the majority of people. Not only does this promote overall health, but it also removes the unwanted side effects of synthetic hormone supplementation.

Interested in learning more about supplements to support blood sugar? Check out my post about cinnamon and diabetes or this helpful chart on supplement safety ratings provided by Diabetes Education Services.

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