DHEA may be suitable alternative for women that cannot take conventional HRT

The hormone called DHEA and mostly secreted by the adrenal glands may be able to help women who are going through menopause and could also give them better sex lives.

Italian researchers writing in the journal of the International Menopause Society, Climacteric, said they had found the first robust evidence that low doses of DHEA can help sexual function and menopausal symptoms, suggesting it may one day become an alternative to hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Larger studies are needed to confirm the results.

“We must bear in mind that this is a pilot study with a small sample,” Anna Fenton, co-editor of Climacteric, said in commentary on the work. “We can’t yet say that this study means that DHEA is a viable alternative to HRT, but … we should be looking to do larger studies to confirm these initial results.”

DHEA, or dehydroepiandrosterone, is a natural steroid hormone mostly made in the adrenal glands and has a variety of therapeutic uses.

Hormone Replacement therapy, HRT, which is a combination of the hormones estrogen and progesterone, is an approved treatment for women going through the menopause, who often experience unpleasant symptoms such as hot flushes, night sweats, loss of sex drive and mood swings. There are other phenomena that occur with untreated menopause, including weight gain, worsening of cholesterol and other cardiovascular risk factors, loss of bone density, and insomnia, to name a few.

The antidepressant Lexapro, made by drugmaker Forest Laboratories, significantly cut the number and severity of hot flushes in menopausal women, and other antidepressants including GlaxoSmithKline’s Paxil and the Pfizer drugs Prozac and Effexor also have been found to be effective. Other symptoms associated with menopause have been treated with a plethora of other prescriptions including osteoporotic drugs, sleep medications, cholesterol lowering drugs, diabetes medications, and weight loss medications , to name a few.

A team of researchers led by Andrea Genazzani of the University of Pisa followed a group of 48 post-menopausal women with troubling symptoms.

This trial lasted for a year, during which 12 women took vitamin D and calcium, 12 took DHEA, 12 took standard HRT and 12 took a synthetic steroid called tibolone which is used to alleviate menopausal symptoms.The women’s menopausal symptoms, sexual interest and activity were measured using a standard questionnaire that queries factors such as satisfaction with frequency of sex, vaginal lubrication, orgasm, and sexual partner. At the end of the 12 month trial, all the women on hormone replacements had improvements in menopausal symptoms, but those taking vitamin D and calcium did not show any significant improvement.

At the start of the trial, all groups had similar sexual activity, but after the year, those taking calcium and vitamin D scored an average of 34.9 on the questionnaire scale, while those taking DHEA had a score of 48.6, showing that those on DHEA had more sexual interest and activity. The results for the HRT group were similar, and both the HRT DHEA groups showed a higher level of sexual intercourse in comparison to the control group, the researchers said.

Genazzani said the results showed DHEA has potential, especially for those women who may have problems in taking more conventional HRT. “But this is a small study, a proof of concept. What we need to do now is to look at a larger study, to confirm that these initial results are valid,” she added.