Spanish explorer Ponce de León may never have found the fabled fountain of youth, but it's possible we've had a natural time eraser at our disposal all along. DHEA, known scientifically as dehydroepiandrosterone, is a hormone in the human body -- and also recreated in supplement form -- that has the potential to help slow, treat or reverse many of the conditions that can occur with age, such as Alzheimer's disease, muscle loss, nerve degeneration, osteoporosis, heart disease and symptoms of menopause [source: WebMD]. Scientists now believe it may also help infertile women increase their odds of conceiving [source:Rice].
While a woman in her childbearing years certainly doesn't fall into the category of old age, her reproductive system is getting older quickly. Most women only have about 3 percent of their ovarian eggs left by the time they hit age 40 [source: Fortuna, et. al]. And sometimes young women can experience a reduced number of eggs, too. This is usually due to premature ovarian aging (POA), which shortens the fertility window and has a similar effect as diminished ovarian reserve (DOR) caused by normal aging.
So, with the impact aging has on female fertility, it's probably not a surprise that a supplement often used to fight age-related conditions is rumored to help with conception as well. On the following pages, we'll look at just how effectively DHEA can improve fertility -- and how safe it is. Keep reading to learn more.
How effective is DHEA for conception?
At this point, you may be thinking it's too good to be true that a hormone created naturally by the body may actually help improve a woman's fertility. To find out, let's take a closer look at DHEA to see if it lives up to the hype.
First of all, the DHEA already in your body isn't going to take you from infertility to conception. If it hasn't come to your aid in that regard by now, it's not likely to any time soon. Much like androgen and estrogen -- the male and female sex hormones derived from DHEA -- its levels drop over time. So what you might want to try is adding more of it to your body. Scientists have recreated DHEA in supplement form using certain soy and wild yam chemicals.
Recent research suggests that women who take DHEA supplements can improve their odds of conception -- particularly if they're already being treated for infertility. A 2010 Israeli study found that women who took DHEA while receiving infertility treatments were three times more likely to conceive than women undergoing treatments without DHEA [source: ScienceDaily]. This was the first controlled study to look at the connection between the supplement and fertility rates, but earlier, less formal research -- as well as anecdotal evidence -- backs up the results. Some studies suggest that DHEA can also reduce miscarriage risk [source: Rice].
But even if DHEA is a miracle supplement that aids reproduction and other conditions, is it safe for the average woman to take? We'll answer that question on the next page.
DHEA Safety and Precautions
First things first: You should talk to your doctor before taking any supplement. Even the least harmful among them can carry some risks -- including unpleasant or dangerous side effects and possible interactions with medications and other supplements.
DHEA is believed to be relatively safe when taken in moderate doses for short periods of time. Some side effects, such as acne, hair loss, upset stomach, high blood pressure, changes in menstruation, facial hair growth and deepening voice can occur in women who take the supplement. Higher doses and/or a longer course of DHEA can increase the risk of these side effects.
Because DHEA is a parent hormone of estrogen (as well as androgen), it can be harmful to a woman who has breast cancer, uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, endometriosis or uterine fibroids [source: WebMD]. High levels of DHEA can also negatively impact other health conditions, ranging from diabetes to depression.
Medications that are known to interact with the supplement include the breast cancer drugs anastrozole, exemestane, fulvestrant, letrozole and tamoxifin, as well as triazolam (a medicine used to treat severe insomnia), corticosteroids, insulin and certain drugs, like fexofenadine, that are broken down by the liver [source: WebMD].
Finally, if you take DHEA and conceive while on it, it's a good idea to stop taking the supplement when you find out you're pregnant as it may be harmful to your baby. You should also avoid DHEA while breastfeeding.
As you can see, DHEA isn't completely harmless. However, if your health history makes you a good candidate for the supplement, there's no reason not to try it while under a doctor's supervision.
If you'd like to know more about infertility, head to the next page for lots more information.
- Center for Human Reproduction. "DHEA: New Treatment for Women with Diminished Ovarian Reserve (DOR)." Dec. 28, 2011. (June 5, 2012) http://www.centerforhumanreprod.com/dhea.html
- Fortuna, Roger and Suzan Clarke. "For Women Who Want Kids, 'the Sooner the Better': 90 percent of eggs gone by age 30." ABC News. Jan. 29, 2010. (June 5, 2012) http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/OnCall/women-fertility-falls-lose-90-percent-eggs-30/story?id=9693015#.T87X4o5Z3FE
- Rice, Rebecca. "DHEA Supplementation May Boost Fertility and IVF Success." CNY Fertility Center. Dec. 21, 2010. (June 5, 2012) http://cnyfertility.com/2010/12/21/dhea-supplementation-may-boost-fertility-and-ivf-success/
- Science Daily. "Increasing Fertility Threefold With DHEA?" July 1, 2010. (June 5, 2012) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/07/100701145535.htm
- WebMD. "DHEA." 2009. (June 5, 2012) http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-331-DHEA.aspx?activeIngredientId=331&activeIngredientName=DHEA