Menopause can be a difficult time in a woman’s life for a myriad of reasons, but its effect on sexual function is particularly notable. During menopause, the body’s hormone production changes drastically, which often causes unpleasant symptoms including vaginal dryness and a diminished libido.

Some companies are promoting an over-the-counter synthetic hormone known as dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) to overcome these conditions. A few lubricant manufacturers now include DHEA in their formulas, which leads to an obvious question: does it really work?

To address this question, let’s consider a few important facts about DHEA:

  • DHEA acts as a neuroactive steroid, and it can affect moods and sexual health. The body turns excess DHEA into female hormones (estrogen).
  • The human body naturally produces DHEA, with levels peaking in a woman’s early 20s. It’s secreted by the adrenal glands, and various factors can affect production. As women go through menopause, DHEA production typically drops off (as does estrogen production).
  • Commercial DHEA supplements are synthesized. It’s important to note that DHEA is distinct from wild yam and other natural herbs–these ingredients can give the body the raw materials that it needs to create DHEA, but they’re not the same thing.
  • DHEA supplements are typically taken as vaginal suppositories. Some lubricants include DHEA as an ingredient; the DHEA probably absorbs through the user’s skin in the same way as with the suppositories.
  • Ultimately, DHEA appears promising. DHEA’s effectiveness directly correlates with the amount used; in a 2009 study published in Menopause: The Journal of The North American Menopause Society, DHEA seemed to treat libido issues at a 1.0% concentration, and concentrations as low as 0.25% still performed better than a placebo group.

    The bad news is that lubricants rarely list the concentration of their ingredients, but small amounts of DHEA can apparently increase vaginal lubrication while enhancing arousal. However, there isn’t enough clinical evidence to demonstrate that any particular lubricant works as well as a vaginal suppository.

    Finally, it’s important to note that DHEA can’t treat all of the symptoms of menopause, and it’s not equivalent to hormone replacement therapy (which physicians frequently prescribe to postmenopausal women for sexual dysfunction issues). With that being said, DHEA does seems effective as a libido enhancer, and a 2007 study published in Menopause International suggested that the steroid might lower risks of osteoporosis.

    Does DHEA Have Any Serious Side Effects?

    If you decide to use a lube with DHEA or a DHEA supplement, you should understand the potential risks. Not much is known about long-term side effects, but there’s some evidence to suggest that high levels of DHEA may increase the risk of breast cancer.

    As DHEA produces estrogen effects, it may also affect blood sugar levels. It may also raise the user’s chances of liver damage and heart disease, but once again, there’s very limited research.

    It’s worth noting that many of the negative side effects of DHEA occur when the substance is used in relatively high concentrations. Commercial lubricants with DHEA should be fairly safe, but if you have any health conditions, you should talk with your physician before using lubricants with this ingredient.

    Finally, we should note that many postmenopausal women find sex more enjoyable and comfortable with some type of added lubrication, so try a few different lubricants–you may not need the added DHEA to enjoy better sex.

    SOURCES:

    Labrie F, Archer D, Bouchard C, et. al. Effect of intravaginal dehydroepiandrosterone (Prasterone) on libido and sexual dysfunction in postmenopausal women. Menopause: The Journal of The North American Menopause Society. 2009:16(5);923-31.

    Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and the menopause: an update.
    Raven PW, Hinson JP. Metabolic and Clinical Trials Unit, Royal Free and University College Medical School, University College London, London, UK.