From the desk of Dr. Aaron Levin, HSP medical consultant:
No, DHEA won’t give you a buzz. But there has been lots of talk about DHEA as a performance enhancing drug lately, so I thought I’d break it down from a medical/sports perspective.
The National Library of Medicine and the NIH describe DHEA as a hormone made naturally in the adrenal gland. It serves as a precursor to male and female sex hormones (androgens and estrogens). That means that DHEA gets modified in the body to form testosterone, among other things. A fair number of studies have been done looking at DHEA’s utility for a variety of medical conditions. So far, it has been shown to be useful for the treatment of adrenal insufficiency, depression (Tyler Hamilton?), induction of labor, and systemic lupus erythematosus. Mind you, DHEA isn’t the first or best treatment option for those conditions. It’s just that there is reasonable evidence that it works to some degree. Interestingly, when it comes to enhancing muscle strength, the NIH gives DHEA a “D” grade, stating, “…there is fair scientific evidence against this use. Many study results in this area conflict but overall the current available evidence in this area is negative. Further research is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn.”
So why would any athlete take DHEA? That’s a tough question. One reason might be for its ultimate conversion in the body to testosterone, and for the performance gains that extra testosterone might yield. There are a few problems with that logic, however. First, DHEA in doses commonly found in over-the-counter supplements does not increase testosterone that much. And the testosterone that is formed, is quickly broken down into a different hormone which promotes prostate growth. Instead of DHEA leading to the increased lean body muscle mass and improved recovery linked to testosterone, it may just lead to an increased risk for prostate hypertrophy, or even prostate cancer. In, 2004, a randomized, double blind study out of UCLA looked at medium and high doses of DHEA in men aged 18-44. They found no increase in circulating testosterone. Instead, they found that taking DHEA increased the circulating blood level of DHEA and ADG—a growth factor for the prostate—but not testosterone. In another study from UC San Diego, researchers found that DHEA can raise testosterone levels, but only in women! In this study a group of men and women got DHEA supplements daily for six months. Testosterone levels doubled for women, but were unchanged in men.
So to ask the question more specifically, why would any male athlete take DHEA? Based on the science, there is certainly no good reason to think that it enhances performance in any significant manner. It may even be harmful. One clue to why someone might take DHEA, (or claim to have taken DHEA,) however, comes not from a scientific journal, but from the LA Times Sports Page. Manny Ramirez, the Dodger’s slugger from Washington Heights, NY (once on a ride I saw 5 dudes carrying baseball bats there, but no one had a mitt or a ball…but I digress) claimed to have taken DHEA when he got busted for doping. He explained that the DHEA he took innocently in a supplement caused him to have an elevated testosterone level, and thus explained his positive test. WADA called that bluff. One, DHEA won’t elevate testosterone to a level which will cause a positive testosterone test. Two, special carbon isotope drug tests can quantify the amount of natural DHEA and testosterone compared to synthetic DHEA or testosterone. And Manny was taking synthetic testosterone. Manny’s not the only one with the DHEA supplement excuse. Rashard Lewis, former Sonic, now playing for Orlando tested positive for elevated testosterone and also blamed a nutritional smoothie supplement he was taking to combat fatigue. Uh huh.
Bottom line. If you are tired, sleep. Don’t take DHEA. And the benefits of testosterone doping, (no matter how you justify it,) can also be achieved with solid training and coaching.