Oh DHEA, what can the matter be?

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is an extremely important hormone. Latest research on female sexual dysfunction has just been presented at the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) Congress in Philadelphia.

Sexual dysfunction prevents a person or couple from getting satisfaction from sexual activity. Desire and arousal are part of the excitement phase of normal sexual activity but are lacking in those who have this problem. Around 31% of men and 43% of women report some degree of sexual dysfunction at some point in their lives. The condition is said to be more common in couples with fertility problems.Connection between sexual dysfunction and infertility

There is a connection between these two conditions. A couple’s sex life can become tainted by disappointment and a sense of failure because they are unable to conceive.

Sex, in this scenario can become a task to be performed only on the woman’s fertile days. This changes love making to baby-making! This takes an emotional toll and further deepens the disappointment and stress linked to their sexual and reproductive problems.

Sexual dysfunction in women

Sexual function in women is influenced by both physical and psychological factors, the most common being self-confidence and mental state. Fertility, the ability to conceive, can also play an important part in this.

In terms of physical factors, hormonal imbalance or low oestrogen levels may lower libido and cause vaginal dryness during intercourse. This may lower women’s sex drive and her chances of conception.

Researchers now report that poor sexual function in pre-menopausal women can be significantly improved with DHEA supplements.

What is the role of DHEA?

DHEA is a messenger chemical, which triggers certain key functions. It is made in the body and helps to produce other sex hormones like testosterone and oestrogen. Natural DHEA levels peak in early adulthood and then slowly fall as we age.

It also seems to have some kind of role in the female sexual response.  Poor sexual function and drive has been reported to improve in post-menopausal women taking a DHEA supplement.

DHEA molecule

Researchers wanted to establish whether DHEA could improve sexual function in pre-menopausal women.

To find out, the researchers recruited 50 premenopausal infertility patients with an average age of 41. These women received a 75 mg oral DHEA supplement daily.

Prior to treatment the women completed a questionnaire on sexual drive and underwent comprehensive hormone testing. This was repeated 4 to 8 weeks after treatment.

The questionnaire was based on the Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI).   The FSFI assesses 6 key areas of female sexual function:

  1. Sexual desire
  2. Sexual arousal
  3. Lubrication
  4. Orgasm
  5. Satisfaction
  6. Pain

What were the results?

The average FSFI score for all the women increased by 7%. The score for desire, arousal, and lubrication increasing by 17%, 12%, and 8% respectively.

However, it was the women whose FSFI scores were in the lowest quartile before starting treatment who benefitted the most. Their FSFI scores increased 34% on average, with all domains improving:

  • Desire improved by 40%
  • Arousal improved by 46%
  • Lubrication improved by 33%
  • Orgasm improved by 54%
  • Satisfaction improved by 24%
  • Pain improved by 25%

Dr. Paula Amato, ASRM Board of Directors said, “DHEA supplementation may improve sexual function for premenopausal women with or without infertility.  Given that the study was not placebo controlled, more research is needed.”

A few words of caution!

Although this is all very interesting and promising, we should heed Dr Amato’s words. Even using a tool like the FSFI, we should all understand that sexual function is largely subjective. Therefore, without placebo control this research is somewhat anecdotal.

Secondly, DHEA is an extremely potent hormone with many different effects on the body. It also has the potential to interact dangerously with other medications. With that in mind, these kinds of supplements or treatments should NEVER be undertaken without the explicit advice and guidance of a registered health care professional.

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