Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a naturally occurring hormone produced by the adrenal gland, and many people take supplemental DHEA for bodybuilding. Advocates claim that the supplement increases lean muscle mass and reduces body fat. Further study into the effects of the supplement is required, but there are a number of possible side effects, ranging from acne and hair loss to depression, mood disorders, liver dysfunction and cancer. The supplement is banned by most sports organizations around the world, and the use of DHEA for competitive bodybuilding is grounds for disqualification.
The body’s production of DHEA is higher during one's youth, reaching its peak in the mid-20s. By the time a person reaches the 30s, DHEA levels have begun to fall sharply. Caffeine, alcohol and stress can also reduce the body's levels of DHEA.
In the body, DHEA acts as a parent hormone, converting first to androstenedione before converting to other hormones, such as testosterone. In most regions, androstenedione is a controlled substance. Using supplements containing DHEA for bodybuilding can be an alternative way to boost testosterone levels legally.
Advocates state that using DHEA for bodybuilding will increase lean muscle mass and reduce body fat. Studies examining its effectiveness have had conflicting results, with some reporting marked increases in muscle development and fat loss and others finding no benefit at all. Experts have agreed that further study is needed.
If anyone will benefit from using DHEA for bodybuilding, it is likely to be the older athlete. The adrenal gland produces less DHEA with age, and supplementing the hormone might provide a number of health benefits, including improved muscle tone and weight loss. Again, research has had conflicting or inconclusive results, but test subjects in their 20s who already have high levels of DHEA are less likely to report any benefit.
Further research into the potential side effects of using DHEA for bodybuilding might be needed. Studies have identified relatively minor side effects, such as acne and balding. The hormone might trigger undesired gender characteristics in both sexes, such as deepening a woman’s voice. These effects are more likely when the supplement is taken in large doses, such as those taken by bodybuilders.
Many experts, however, state that DHEA functions in the body like other steroids. After all, DHEA converts to androstenedione, which is illegal for use as a steroid in most jurisdictions. These experts suggest that DHEA poses the same risk of serious side effects as other steroids, such as increased risk of cancer, although research is needed to confirm this hypothesis.
The use of DHEA for bodybuilding can also lead to exclusion from competitive events. In most sporting organizations worldwide, DHEA is a banned substance. Competitors found to be using the supplement are likely to be disqualified from the event and might be banned from future participation for a certain period of time or indefinitely.