Passion Potion?

Experts divided on whether health-food supplement helps dysfunctional women

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By
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, June 7, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- A path to recapturing passion may be sitting on the shelves of health food stores, a new study says. Then again, critics say, the supplement may cause more problems for women than it solves.

Boston researchers say the popular supplement DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) may help women with some forms of sexual dysfunction. Even so, others are quick to point out that there were weaknesses in the study and more research needs to be done.

"It could be the answer for a lot of women -- and it's a relatively simple and easy treatment to take," says Dr. Irwin Goldstein, a professor of urology at Boston University School of Medicine, and the study's author. The study was presented at this week's annual meeting of the American Urological Association, in Anaheim, Calif.

Others, however, are not so sure the answer is correct -- or safe.

"The research is interesting, but so are the side effects of DHEA, which, in high-enough doses, can cause women to experience masculinizing traits, including growth of facial and body hair, a deepening of the voice and male-balding pattern," says Dr. Anne R. Davis, an expert at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center's New York Center for Human Sexuality.

Conceive a baby girl while your levels of DHEA are too high, Davis explains, and you could be exposing the fetus to too much testosterone, which can cause androngenizing effects that can significantly change how her sex organs develop.

"This is not something you want to experiment with, particularly in high doses and especially if you don't know if your DHEA is low to begin with," Davis adds.

A precursor to other biochemicals linked to sexual response -- including the steroid hormones androstenedione and testosterone -- production of DHEA begins just before puberty and drops gradually as you age. When levels are high, or even adequate, says Goldstein, a woman's sex drive will flourish. But let levels fall too low, and her desire will go right down the drain, he says.

"Women report they feel like nothing more than a receptacle for their partners -- there is no enjoyment, no satisfaction, no desire," says Goldstein. "It can be devastating."

But what causes DHEA levels in some women to plummet to levels that need treatment? Goldstein believes the key lies in a little-known adrenal enzyme called 17-20 lyase, which controls the production of DHEA. He believes that, for unknown reasons, production of 17-20 lyase falters in some women, causing DHEA levels to nosedive and a cascade of other sex-related hormones to crash, as well.

"Women often experience a decrease in sexual desire after certain periods in their life -- for example, after giving birth to a child -- and it's possible that pregnancy is one factor that affects 17-20 lyase," says Goldstein. It also could be the reason, he says, why many women lose interest in sex after having children. "They think they are just tired or stressed -- but it could be that DHEA levels are just too low," says Goldstein.

By taking the supplements, he says, a woman can override the enzyme deficiency and restore the missing chemistry in her body -- and her sex life.

"The women in our study reported a dramatic increase in sexual response within a year or less of taking DHEA supplements," says Goldstein.

That study focused on only 32 women who had a documented androgen deficiency -- a lack of the hormones linked to DHEA. Each of the women also reported a lack of sexual desire, inability to achieve satisfactory orgasm and difficulty becoming aroused.

After only 6 to 12 months of taking 50mg of DHEA supplements daily, however, the women, on average, reported dramatic increases in sexual desire, plus a return of sexual fantasies and the ability to become aroused faster and easier.

One drawback to the study -- there was no control group to document a possible placebo effect, and that, say critics, is the problem.

"It has been well documented that the placebo effect, particularly in sexual dysfunction studies, can be enormous -- so without a control group, we have no real way of knowing how effective the DHEA supplements were, or if they were even effective at all," says Davis.

What To Do

Studies have shown that taking up to 50mg of DHEA a day is relatively safe -- and not likely to cause you any significant side effects. That said, experts urge women not to treat their own dysfunction problems until they have talked to their doctor.

"DHEA may not be the problem -- and if your levels are not low, taking a supplement could have some adverse effects," says Davis.

In addition, Goldstein cautions that not all DHEA supplements are alike -- and many can contain far less or far more of the active ingredients than what is on the label.

"Until there is FDA control over DHEA as a drug, I wouldn't advise any woman to take it on her own, without prior blood tests and without a doctor's guidance," he says.

On the other hand, don't expect your doctor to be totally familiar with the use of DHEA -- the research is just beginning and little is really known about its effects.

What you can do, says Davis, is confide in your doctor about any sexual dysfunction problems you are having and learn about the whole range of tests and treatments that can help.

For more information on female sexual dysfunction, visit the American Academy of Family Physicians.

To learn more about DHEA, click here

To read more HealthDay stories on sexual dysfunction, click here.

SOURCES: Interviews with Irwin Goldstein, M.D., professor of urology, Boston University School of Medicine, and study author; Anne R. Davis, M.D., associate professor of urologic surgery, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, and expert at Columbia's New York Center For Human Sexuality; June 2, 2001, presentation, American Urological Association annual meeting, Anaheim, Calif.

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