The hormone DHEA has been found to help relieve menopausal symptoms in women, as well as helping them improve their sex lives, Italian researchers wrote in the Climacteric, the peer-reviewed journal of the International Menopause Society. DHEA stands for Dehydroepiandrosterone, a steroid hormone secreted mainly by the adrenal glands – it is the most abundant circulating steroid in humans.

Professor Andrea Genazzani and team from the University of Pisa, Italy, say that theirs is the first controlled evidence showing that low-dose DHEA can help menopausal symptoms as well as sexual function in females. They added that further human trials are required to confirm DHEA’s benefits in females after the menopause.

Forty-eight postmenopausal females were monitored for twelve months. They all had troubling menopausal symptoms. Twelve of them were unwilling to take any kind of HRT (hormone replacement therapy) – they received a combination of vitamin D and calcium supplementation to help protect from osteoporosis. The other 36 participants were randomly selected into three groups:

  • The DHEA group, 12 women – they received a low dose of the hormone
  • The HRT group, 12 women – they received estrogen plus progesterone
  • The Tibolone group, 12 women – they received the synthetic steroid (tibolone)

The participants were given a questionnaire (Greene Climacteric Scale) which they regularly had to complete during the 12-month trial.

They also regularly completed the McCoy Female Sexuality Questionnaire (MFSQ), which includes several questions on sexual interest, sexual activity frequency, vaginal lubrication, sexual partner, orgasm and sexual satisfaction. The questionnaire focuses on factors which impact on the sexuality of females as their hormone levels change.

The females also had their hormone levels regularly measured throughout the twelve months.

All the hormone replacement participants had better menopausal symptoms, while those on the vitamin D and calcium combination did not.

The women in all three groups had similar sexual activity when the study began. At the end of the 12 months:

  • The vitamin D group had a McCoy score of 34.9
  • The DHEA group had a McCaoy score of 48.6
  • Those in the HRT group had similar scores to those in the DHEA group
  • Those in the tibolone group scored higher than those in the vitamin D group, but not significantly so

Professor Genazzani said:

“This is the first time that a controlled trial has shown that low doses of the hormone DHEA may be able to help women deal better with menopausal symptoms, as well as helping their sex life.

The work shows that 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”.

Co-Editor of Climacteric, Dr Anna Fenton, wrote:

“This is an interesting result, although we must bear in mind that this is a pilot study with a small sample. Nevertheless, it does indicate that DHEA has potential as a therapy to help women deal with the physical discomfort of the menopause, as well as helping them sexually. We can’t yet say that this study means that DHEA is a viable alternative to HRT, but what we can say is that we should be looking to do larger studies to confirm these initial results”.

Written by Christian Nordqvist