DHEA might help with growth hormone levels and athletic performance, but is banned by some sports organizations.
Didehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is the primary steroid that circulates through the human body and is the intermediate compound in the biological synthesis of sex steroids. Due to its key role in various biological processes linked to the endocrine system, supplementation with DHEA has been suggested to help boost growth hormones by:
- Influencing the growth hormone/insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I) axis. DHEA might promote activity of the growth hormone/IGF-I axis, which plays a key role in the growth and development of the body.
- Promoting the production of steroid hormones. As a precursor to steroid hormones, DHEA supplementation could help boost testosterone levels.
- Maintaining a stable cortisol/DHEA ratio. DHEA supplementation can even out the cortisol:DHEA ratio that typically occurs during exercise and promote the creation of proteins and muscle mass.
DHEA is a “parent hormone” that is naturally produced in the human body by the adrenal glands located near the liver and kidney, as well as by the testes in men. Once released into the body, it is transformed into the androstenedoine hormone, when is then converted into the primary male and female hormones, including testosterone.
DHEA can also be synthesized in the laboratory using chemicals obtained from soy and wild yam. Despite many products advertising themselves with the “natural DHEA” level, the body cannot cannot utilize these chemicals for the hormone, meaning supplementing your diet with these foods will not boost your DHEA levels.
Given its key role in the production of steroid hormones, as well as studies linking it to growth hormones, DHEA supplements are making their way through fitness stores all around the world and many gym rats are adding DHEA supplements into their stack in an attempt to boost their gains by increasing muscle growth and cutting fat.
DHEA Legality in Sports
Although data on the effectiveness of DHEA supplementation is still conflicting, its potential ability to increase muscle strength has led to numerous organizations banning its use as a supplement. These organizations include:
- National Football League
- Major League Baseball
- National Collegiate Athletic Association
How DHEA Might Help With Growth Hormones
Influencing the growth hormone/IGF-I axis
The growth hormone/IGF-I axis refers the the process whereby IGF-I is produced by the liver after being signaled by human growth hormone (HGH). In combination with IGF-II, which is believed to play a role in early development, IGF-I is necessary for maximal growth in the body and research has shown that increased muscle volume through training is connected to IGF-I and the growth hormone/IGF-I axis.1 The combination of HGH and IGF proteins is essential for the promotion of cell development and inhibition of apoptosis – also known as cell death. Supporting this connection is the fact that as we age, our bones and muscles breakdown- a process that has been connected to this axis.2
Research has also shown that DHEA supplementation can increase blood serum IGF-1 levels, which could help promote activity in the growth hormone/IGF-1 axis and help with the development of muscle mass and improve athletic performance.
Promoting the production of steroid hormones
As mentioned above, the production of DHEA by the adrenal glands leads to its release into the body, where it is used for the creation of androstenedoine – a hormonal precursor to the primary male and female hormones. Given this role, many believe that supplementing with DHEA can increase the release of these hormones – including testosterone. In the presence of growth hormone, testosterone has been shown to increase the creation of proteins,3 which means that boosting steroid hormones could improve the synergy between these two hormones and aid in the creation of muscle.
Furthermore, research has shown a correlation between concentrations of DHEA in serum and saliva and steroid hormones both during exercise and at rest,4 supporting the potential relationship between testosterone, GH and muscle growth. In addition, research has shown that the response of DHEA and dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS) to exercise changes with age,5 which prompts many older fitness buffs to harness DHEA supplementation in order to maintain a healthy DHEA response during training and ideally get their steroid hormone levels back up to snuff.
Maintaining a stable cortisol/DHEA ratio
During periods of excessive exercise, the adrenal glands release the steroid hormone cortisol, creating a high cortisol/DHEA ratio. Over time, this imbalance can lead to the deprivation of amino acids – which are necessary for the creation of proteins and muscle – due to cortisol’s catabolic nature.6 On the other hand, DHEA is an anabolic hormone and ensuring that your DHEA levels aren’t outweighed by cortisol levels can help your body continue to accelerate the creation of proteins from amino acids and build muscle mass. The process of building muscle mass is tightly connected to the presence of growth hormones and DHEA supplementation might help to solidify this link.
DHEA Benefits, Popular Uses and Reputation for Growth Hormones
Athletes take DHEA in order to bolster the secretion of growth hormones and help increase their muscle mass. Furthermore, research suggests that DHEA supplementation can decrease levels of body fat, another benefit for gym rats. Although some research is conflicting, most of the data thus far supports the ability of DHEA supplementation to increase growth hormones and its connection to the many bodily process linked to growth hormone activity.
Soy and yam contain the plant hormone diosgenin, which can be extracted in the laboratory and converted into DHEA. It is through this process that many chemists create the DHEA that is used in dietary supplements. However, eating these foods is not an effective method of boosting DHEA levels as your body does not have the ability to convert diosgenin to DHEA. There is currently no evidence that consuming such foods can boost DHEA levels.
Animal research on the effects of DHEA on growth hormone levels is limited, although current data suggests links to exercise that could be indicative of influences on growth hormones, including:
In order to determine the effects of DHEA supplementation on levels of sex steroids in the blood – as well as muscle strength and body composition in older males and females – researchers examined nine males and ten females in a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind, cross-over trial. Each participant consumed one-hundred milligrams of DHEA per day for six months in addition to six months of a placebo. Blood samples were taken each morning prior to food intake and various blood measurements were gathered both at baseline levels and following treatment. Prior to the study, baseline blood levels of testosterone, androsternedione, dihydrotestosterone and DHEA were either equal to or lower than typical levels for young adults. After the supplementation with DHEA, DHEA levels were either restored to or increased to above the standard range of young adults. In addition, levels of testosterone, androsternedione and dihydrotestosterone were increased to levels higher than the standard young adult levels in women but not men. In both sex groups, insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) levels in blood serum were increased through the administration of DHEA. Additionally, men experienced a significant loss of body mass as well as an increase in muscle strength in the knee and strength in the lumbar back.
- The researchers concluded that DHEA supplementation can lead to the “elevation of circulating DHEA and DS [DHEA-sulphate] concentrations and the DS/cortisol ratio,” as well as “an increase in serum IGF-I levels” in both men and women, although “dimorphic responses were evident in fat body mass and muscle strength in favor of men.” The data suggests a gender-specific response to DHEA supplementation.9
In order to determine if supplementing with DHEA can affect muscle mass and strength as well as increase the benefits of resistance exercise in older males and females, researchers conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized study. The study lasted ten months long, with the last four months consisting of a weightlifting training regimen. The results revealed that after six months of DHEA supplementation, muscle mass was not affected. However, during the four months of exercise the DHEA group showed increased muscle strength and muscle volume in their thighs. Furthermore, IGF (insulin-like growth factor) levels in blood serum were higher in the DHEA group.
- The researchers concluded that “DHEA replacement has the beneficial effect of enhancing the increases in muscle mass and strength induced by heavy resistance exercise in elderly individuals.” 10
In order to determine if six months of postmenopausal dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) supplementation orally at twenty-five milligrams per day affects serum levels of dehydroepiandrosterone, DHEAS, testosterone (T), lipoprotein and IGF-I levels, researchers conducted a double-blind, randomized, parallel trial on 13 overweight or normal postmenopausal females in good health. The results revealed increases in levels of DHEAS, DHEA and T levels into ranges that fall into the premenopausal category, although T and DHEA levels were no different than the placebo group after a six-month time period. In addition, after three months the insulin-like growth factor-I/insulin-like growth factor-binding protein 3(IGFBP-III) ratio increased significantly, although like T and DHEA levels, these values returned to the levels seen in the placebo group after a six-month time period. DHEA supplementation also led to a decrease in levels of apolipoprotein A1 and high-density lipoprotein.
- The researchers concluded that DHEA supplementation “increased IGF-I/IGFBP-3 levels at 3 months and decreased high-density lipoprotein and apolipoprotein A1 levels at 6 months.”11
A randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study examined 99 women with a mean age of seventy-six that possessed low levels of DHEAS, bone mass and exhibited frailty. Participants consumed approximately fifty milligrams of DHEA or a placebo each day for a period of six months, as well as six-hundred-and-thirty milligrams par day of calcium and four-hundred International Units of cholecalciferol. Twice a week, each of the women conducted an exercise routine. The results revealed that participants in the DHEA group exhibited gains in the strength of lower-extremities, as well increased performance on the SPPBS (Short Physical Performance Battery Score). Additionally, a connection between DHEA and alterations in levels of numerous hormones including testosterone, estradiol, estrone and DHEAS was observed.
- The researchers concluded that “DHEA supplementation improved lower extremity strength and function in older, frail women involved in a gentle exercise program of chair aerobics or yoga.”12
To determine the effects of DHEA supplementation on strength, muscle mass and endurance – as well as profiles of serum hormones and lipids – in postmenopausal women, researchers conducted a twelve-week randomized, prospective, placebo-controlled study. Four groups were created: DHEA at fifty milligrams per day; CEE (conjugated equine estrogen) at 0.625 milligrams per day; DHEA at fifty milligrams per day plus 0.625 milligrams of conjugated equine estrogen; and a placebo. The results revealed that in both the DHEA and CEE/DHEA group, increases in DHEA-DHEA-S, androstenedione and testosterone were observed. However, compared to the placebo group, none of the other groups exhibited changes in levels of muscle mass, strength or endurance.
- The researchers concluded that DHEA used for androgen replacement therapy in menopausal females can lead to increases in hormone levels in blood serum, although no “appreciable effect on muscle cross-sectional area, muscle strength, muscle function,” or quality of life was observed.13
Dosage for Growth Hormones
- Successful studies thus far have used DHEA dosages in the range of 25 mg to 100 mg
- Dosage ranges in the form of capsule supplements range from 25 mg to 100 mg as well
- The most common dosage for supplements appears to be 25 mg
When used for a few months at a time at dosages no higher than 100 mg per day, DHEA is fairly safe. However, there are some side effects including upset stomach, acne, hair loss and high blood pressure. Women might experience changes in their menstrual cycle. Check with your doctors prior to DHEA supplementation if you have a hormone-sensitive condition.
Supplements in Review Says
- DHEA, 50 mg for growth hormones in the form of capsules
Studies support the idea that DHEA supplementation can increase serum growth hormone levels and promote muscle mass and strength. Although many of these studies focus on elderly individuals – particularly women – current data is promising and the animal research that exists supports its effects on growth hormone levels.
50 mg is the most common dose used in human studies that successfully highlight the ability of DHEA supplementation to increase growth hormones or increase physical function.
- Eliakim A et al. Increased physical activity and the growth hormone-IGF-I axis in adolescent males. American Journal of Physiology – Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology. 1998 July 1;275(1):308-314 ↩
- Perrini S et al. The GH/IGF1 axis and signaling pathways in the muscle and bone:mechanisms underlying age-related skeletal muscle wasting andosteoporosis. Journal of Endocrinology. 2010 March 2;205:201-210 ↩
- Birzniece V et al. Interaction between testosterone and growth hormone on whole-body protein anabolism occurs in the liver. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2011 Apr;96(4):1060-7 ↩
- Collomp et al. DHEA, physical exercise and doping. The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. 2015 January;145:206-212 ↩
- Aldred S et al. Altered DHEA and DHEAS response to exercise in healthy older adults. J Aging Phys Act. 2009 Jan;17(1):77-88 ↩
- Tremblay M et al. Effect of training status and exercise mode on endogenous steroid hormones in men. Journal of Applied Physiology 2004 February 1;96(2):531-539 ↩
- Han D et al. DHEA Treatment Reduces Fat Accumulation and Protects Against Insulin Resistance in Male Rats. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 1998;53(1):19-24 ↩
- Kang J et al. Long-Term Administration of Dehydroepiandrosterone Accelerates Glucose Catabolism via Activation of PI3K/Akt-PFK-2 Signaling Pathway in Rats Fed a High-Fat Diet. PLoS One. 2016 Jul 13;11(7) ↩
- Morales A et al. The effect of six months treatment with a 100 mg daily dose of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) on circulating sex steroids, body composition and muscle strength in age-advanced men and women. Clinical Endocrinology. 1998 October;49(4):421-432 ↩
- Villareal D and Holloszy J. DHEA enhances effects of weight training on muscle mass and strength in elderly women and men. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2006 Nov;291(5):1003-8 ↩
- Casson P et al. Postmenopausal dehydroepiandrosterone administration increases free insulin-like growth factor-I and decreases high-density lipoprotein: a six-month trial. Fertility and Sterility. 1998 July;70(1):107-110 ↩
- Kenny M et al. Dehydroepiandrosterone combined with exercise improves muscle strength and physical function in frail older women. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2010 September;58:1707-1714 ↩
- Dayal M et al. Supplementation with DHEA: effect on muscle size, strength, quality of life, and lipids. J Womens Health (Larchmt). 2005 Jun;14(5):391-400 ↩