A steroid hormone made naturally by the body, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is used by some people as a nutritional supplement. DHEA has a low incidence of side effects when taken for brief periods of time at low doses. When taken for long periods of time at high doses, however, DHEA may result in side effects that range from mild to potentially serious. DHEA side effects include acne, high blood pressure and, in women, deeper voices and the growth of facial hair. Some people should only use DHEA under a doctor's supervision, if at all.
DHEA side effects usually become more pronounced when the hormone is taken in high doses. High doses of DHEA are defined as 50-100 milligrams or more per day. Nausea, high blood pressure, and acne are the most commonly reported side effects. DHEA side effects also include the alteration of how sugar functions in the body, so it should be avoided by people who have diabetes. Studies have shown that DHEA lowers high lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL), so patients who have low HDL need to talk to their doctors before using the hormone.
In women, DHEA side effects can include the growth of facial hair, the deepening of their voices, and irregular menstrual cycles. DHEA, as it's made naturally in the body, is secreted by the adrenal glands and increases the body's levels of androgens. High levels of these hormones activate androgen receptors, resulting in male characteristics. The symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) can worsen with DHEA supplementation. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid DHEA.
Other DHEA side effects relate to its ramifications on how estrogen is utilized by the body. Women who have conditions that are affected by estrogen levels shouldn't supplement with DHEA. Such conditions include uterine fibroids, endometriosis, and cancers of the reproductive organs.
Studies have shown that DHEA, a cortisol antagonist, can improve mood and help treat mild depression. If a person suffers from a clinical mood disorder, however, he or she shouldn't use DHEA. The hormone has also been shown to be effective in treating symptoms of lupus. DHEA is often used as an aid for developing muscle mass, but clinical trials have returned insufficient evidence for its efficacy in muscle building.
Proponents of DHEA supplementation claim that the hormone can improve episodic memory in aging people. Medical research for this claim has, however, provided inconclusive results. Studies have shown that DHEA can be effective in improving bone density in older patients who suffer from osteoporosis.