DHEA for Depression: The Case For and Against

There probably isn’t a more controversial supplement for depression treatment available today than dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). A pro-hormone that occurs naturally in the body, supplements can also be used to combat the symptoms of depression. But is it effective, and is it safe?

The Pros

The case for DHEA as a depression treatment is strong: a recent study of 46 people with minor to moderate depression showed that half of the subjects had a 50% reduction in symptoms of depression after taking DHEA as a depression treatment for six weeks. The researchers concluded that doctors might consider DHEA for those who either refuse to take prescription anti-depression medications, or those who do not respond to standard depression treatment.

Researchers studied DHEA for mid-life depression treatment. They postulated that since the naturally-occurring DHEA levels normally decrease with age that the symptoms of depression could be brought on through DHEA deficiency. By age 70, DHEA levels are about 80 percent lower than at their peak, around the age of 25. Lowered DHEA levels may be one causative factor of the symptoms of depression, and studies have shown people with higher DHEA levels tend to be healthier and live longer. Supplementation is essentially a way to restore DHEA levels, which in turns elevate mood as a depression treatment. DHEA can usually be taken with prescription medicines for depression treatment.

The Cons

The case against DHEA does not dispute its effectiveness in fighting the symptoms of depression. The concerns are raised due to DHEA’s natural role in the body. DHEA is a weak male hormone or pro-hormone that occurs naturally in the human body, and in higher amounts than any other hormone. It is a precursor for the body’s sex steroids estrogen, testosterone, and androstenedione, and is produced by the adrenal glands, testes, ovaries, fatty tissue, brain and skin. Many of the people who are concerned about DHEA as a depression treatment question the wisdom of “hormone therapies”. There is also some concern about the side-effects (given below) but none of DHEA’s contraindications rule out the supplements use as depression treatment for everyone.

Safe DHEA Usage

People needing depression treatment who are at risk for breast, ovarian, endometrial, cervical or prostate cancer or for any other hormone-dependent cancers should refrain from taking DHEA because it increases androgen and estrogen levels, a definite risk factor for these types of cancers. Interestingly, women with breast cancer have low DHEA levels. The FDA has recommended that post-menopausal women avoid DHEA because one study showed that taking it even for a relatively short period of time increases the risk of breast cancer in a similar manner that taking birth control pills (a low dose of estrogen) does. If women take DHEA for depression treatment, they need to perform monthly self breast-exam and annual mammograms.

Also, DHEA increases the risk of atherosclerosis, because although it can lower total cholesterol and triglycerides, it also can lower HDL (good cholesterol). Because of these risks, one should probably take DHEA for depression treatment under doctor supervision only, having cholesterol regularly checked.

The most common known side effect of taking DHEA to combat the symptoms of depression is acne. Other common side effects are facial hair, hair loss and increased perspiration. These side effects disappear soon after DHEA use is ceased. These side effects are not particularly harmful, but many reliable experts assert that any long-term side effects are unknown.

The Bottom Line

DHEA has sometimes been found to be effective as a depression treatment for midlife-onset minor and moderate depression. With the contraindications and careful monitoring as noted above, DHEA is worth considering as a treatment of depression.