DHA and DHEA, despite being similar acronyms, are two different things entirely. Docosahexaenoic acid an omega-3 fatty acid derived from food sources, while dehydroepiandrosterone is a synthetic hormone. DHA and DHEA are regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration as dietary supplements and can be associated with no specific health claims. Before you use these supplements to address your health concerns, talk to your doctor.
About Docosahexaenoic Acid
Docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, is a fatty acid found in cold-water fish, seaweed and fish oil supplements, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. In the first half-year of life, DHA is extremely important to the development of the nervous system and vision. Adults find omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA beneficial to reduce the risk of heart disease. According to the UMMC, our bodies produce minute amounts of DHA, and we also get it from the foods we eat; however, a substantial number of people living in the Western world don't consume enough foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Fish high in DHA include salmon, mackerel, sardines, shellfish, herring and bluefin tuna. In addition to food sources, DHA dietary supplements can be purchased in the form of fish oil capsules, which also contain eicosapentaenoic acid, which is another type of omega-3 fatty acid. DHA supplements can also be extracted from algae; these don't contain EPA.
In addition to treating heart disease and helping with infant development, the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center suggests that DHA can be used to treat asthma, atherosclerosis, colitis, cystic fibrosis, depression, high cholesterol, ultra-violet radiation damage and psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia. However, not all of these claims have been proven through clinical studies. Side effects of fish oil supplements are generally mild and include a fishy aftertaste, loose stool and queasiness.
Your adrenal glands produce the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone at higher levels in certain times of life than in others, according to the UMMC. DHEA causes your body to produce androgens and estrogens, which are male and female sex hormones. You produce the highest levels of DHEA in your mid-20s, after which levels of DHEA go into a steady decline. The UMMC notes that levels of DHEA in people 70 years of age is around 80 percent lower than those in young adults. Reduced DHEA in older adults has been linked to health conditions such as osteoporosis, memory loss, breast cancer and heart disease. Unlike DHA, there are no dietary sources of DHEA.
DHEA is sold in a variety of preparations including capsules, tablets, drops, topical creams and even chewing gum. Many DHEA supplements use a plant extract that comes from Mexican wild yams, although there's no evidence that wild yam extract can be converted into DHEA in your body. Suggested uses for DHEA supplements include treating lupus, HIV, irritable bowel disorder, adrenal insufficiency, depression, osteoporosis, obesity, erectile dysfunction/flagging libido, symptoms of menopause in women and general signs of aging. DHEA supplements are touted as synthetic hormones that purportedly can delay or turn back the aging process. However, the National Institute on Aging points out that we don't yet know how DHEA can affect the body when used for an extended amount of time. Even brief use of DHEA has been linked to liver damage. Because so few clinical studies have been conducted on DHEA, its overall safety and effectiveness is not yet known, states the NIA.
Cautions and Concerns
Neither DHEA or DHA is suggested for use in children or pregnant or nursing women. DHEA is not recommended for anyone under the age of 40, unless DHEA levels are known to be low. According to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, DHEA comes with a litany of side effects and other cautions and concerns. Side effects may include mania, acne and menstrual irregularities, increased facial hair, hair loss and lowering of the voice in women. DHEA is also associated with increased risk for ovarian and breast cancer in premenopausal women; this risk is increased if you are obese. The UMMC states that there's no evidence that DHEA either helps or prevents signs of aging.
Because it may affect your hormones, it's vital that you speak with your doctor before you take DHEA supplements. Consult your doctor before using any dietary supplement if you plan to use it for health benefits, especially if you have an existing health condition or use other medications and/or supplements.