DHEA, or dehydroepiandrosterone, is a hormone that is available as a dietary supplement. It is marketed as an antiaging compound and as a “miracle cure” for many medical conditions. Claimed benefits of DHEA that are of potential interest to people with MS include improvement in fatigue, sex drive, and mood.
DHEA is a naturally occurring steroid hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands. DHEA may be important for aging because blood levels of DHEA decrease significantly as people get older. DHEA levels decrease by approximately 90 percent by the age of 85 to 90 years.
Studies on DHEA have not demonstrated definite benefits. For heart disease, DHEA may have a beneficial effect in men but a harmful effect in women. Some studies indicate that it may have an antidepressant effect.
There is limited information about the effects of DHEA on immune system–related diseases such as MS. No published studies have been reported with MS. However, another autoimmune disease, lupus, has been the subject of some studies. DHEA may be beneficial in a mouse model of lupus and may have therapeutic effects for people with lupus. Additional research in this area is necessary.
In spite of these possible effects on lupus, DHEA is of concern for people with MS because it may activate the immune system. It is known that immune system activity decreases as people age. Because DHEA levels also decrease as people age, it has been proposed that DHEA may have an important stimulating effect on the immune system and that the aging-associated decline of DHEA is the cause for the aging-associated decline in immune function. DHEA appears to attach to and stimulate a specific immune cell known as a T cell. These T cells are already too active in MS, so additional T cell stimulation with DHEA might be harmful.
DHEA has multiple possible adverse effects. It may increase the risk of developing heart disease or cancer in women. Liver injury is also possible. The safety of long-term DHEA use has not been studied.
There is no strong reason for people with MS to take DHEA supplements. No definite benefits are associated with its use. In addition, it carries a theoretical risk as a result of immune stimulation and may cause multiple adverse effects, especially for women.