Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), is steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands and ovary. It is involved in producing the male hormones, androstenedione testosterone and also estrogen. DHEA blood levels tend to decline naturally with age.
Under the effect of luteinizing hormone (LH), DHEA is metabolized to testosterone in ovarian connective tissue (theca/stroma). Thereupon the testosterone is transported to the granulosa cells that form the innermost layer of the ovarian follicles where, under the influence of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH)-induced desmolase and aromatase enzymatic activity the testosterone is converted to estradiol. As this happens, granulosa cells multiply, follicle fluid volume increases along with estrogen output and egg development is promoted.
It is recognition of the essential/indispensable role that male hormones (mainly testosterone) play in follicle and egg development that prompted the belief that by giving DHEA and boosting ovarian testosterone production might benefit follicle/egg development. This belief was given some credence by an Israeli study that in 2010 reported on improved fertility when a group of infertile women were given the administration of 75mg of oral DHEA for 5 months. However, this study was seriously flawed by the fact that it did not separate out women who had diminished ovarian reserve, older women and those with PCOS, all of whom have increased LH-induced production of testosterone. In fact, we recently completed a study (currently being processed for publication) where we conclusively showed that when follicular fluid testosterone levels exceeded a certain threshold, egg quality was seriously prejudiced as evidenced by a marked increase in the incidence of egg chromosomal defects (aneuploidy).
Consider the following: Ovarian testosterone is needed for follicular development. However, the amount required is small. Too much ovarian testosterone spills over into the folicular fluid and has a deleterious effect on egg/follicle development. Some women (women with diminished ovarian reserve –DOR, older women and those with polycystic ovarian syndrome-PCOS) who tend to have increased LH biological activity, already over-produce testosterone. To such women, the administration of DHEA to such women, by “adding fuel to the fire” can be decidedly prejudicial, in my opinion. Young women with normal ovarian reserve do not over produce LH-induced ovarian testosterone, and are thus probably not at significant risk from DHEA supplementation. It is noteworthy that to date, none of the studies that suggest a benefit from DHEA therapy have differentiated between young healthy normal women with normal ovarian reserve on the one hand and olderf women, those with DOR and women with PCOS on the other hand.
In some countries, DHEA treatment requires a medical prescription and medical supervision. This is not the case in the U.S.A, where it can be bought over the counter. Since DHEA is involved in sex hormone production, including testosterone and estrogen, individuals with malignant conditions that may be hormone dependent (certain types of breast cancer or testicular cancer) should not receive DHEA supplementation. Also, if overdosed with DHEA some “sensitive women” might so increase their blood concentrations of testosterone that they develop increased aggressive tendencies or male characteristics such as hirsuites (increased hair growth) and a deepening voice. DHEA can also interact other medications, such as barbiturates, corticosteroids, insulin and with other oral diabetic medications.
BUT the strongest argument against the use of routine DHEA supplementation is the potential risk of compromising egg quality in certain categories of women and since there is presently no convincing evidence of any benefit, why take the risk in using it on anyone.
Finally, for those who in spite of the above, still feel compelled to take DHEA, the best advice I can give is to consult their health care providers before starting the process.
Addendum: One potential advantage of DHEA therapy if used appropriately came from a study conducted by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MI and reported in the November 2004 issue of the “Journal of the American Medical Association” which showed that judicious (selective) administration of 50mg DHEA daily for 6 months resulted in a significant reduction of abdominal fat and blood insulin in elderly women.