Hot flashes. Night sweats. A clammy feeling. Irritability. Mood swings. Trouble sleeping at night. Irregular periods. Dry vagina. Crashing fatigue. Anxiety. Difficulty concentrating. Disorientation. Incontinence. Aching muscles. Headaches. Flatulence. Dizziness. Hair loss. Changes in body odor. Bleeding gums. Tinnitus.
Those are only some of at least 35 symptoms suffered by women going through menopause—and the list can sound like a litany of woes or a torturer’s catalogue of triumphs.
Most menopausal women do suffer many distressing symptoms, including decreased libido and sexual function—which is particularly frustrating for women with husbands or partners who want to enjoy the newfound time alone with their wives in the now-empty nest.
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can spell the difference between unbearable and manageable symptoms for some menopausal women—even where libido and sexual function is concerned.
But with many studies that show women who take hormones to relieve the symptoms of menopause are putting themselves at a higher risk for cancer, heart disease and stroke, HRT has been getting a bad name lately.
And for women who want to steer clear of the conventional HRT hormones, the adrenal hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) can be an alternative.
In both men and women, DHEA is a precursor hormone from which other reproductive hormones, like estrogen in women and the male testosterone, are synthesized.
It isn’t new at all. In recent years, DHEA has even captured the public imagination as an anti-aging hormone. This is mainly because a growing body of research, mostly of animal trials, has found that DHEA boosts the immune system, protects against atherosclerosis, works as a metabolic anti-obesity agent, enhances memory (in both mice and men) and prevents osteoporosis.
A Google search of “DHEA” will bring up around 10 million results, mostly of products and treatments and the companies that make and market these.
Still, the verdict isn’t out, and it’s still unclear if DHEA is as wonderful as it’s touted to be. What is sure is that it eases symptoms of menopause and improves sexual function in menopausal women.
New findings from Italy’s University of Pisa show that taking DHEA eases the severity of menopause symptoms, and improves sexual desire and function as well. Their findings were published in Climacteric, the journal of adult women’s health and medicine published by the International Menopause Society.
For the study, researchers led by Dr. Andrea R. Genazzani of the University of Pisa’s Department of Reproductive Medicine and Child Development/Division of Gynecology and Obstetrics, recruited 48 women, between 50 and 60 years old, who had been suffering from menopause symptoms for a year. [via Informahealthcare]
Researchers followed the women and studied the course of their menopause symptoms throughout the span of the one-year trial.
Participants were then divided randomly into four groups, and all were given a daily supplement for a year to east the ailments linked to menopause:
- One group was give low-dose DHEA (10 mg);
- One was given the standard estrogen-progesterone HRT (1 mg estradiol and 5 mg dihydrogesterone);
- One group was given a synthetic hormone called tibolone (2.5 mg), which has previously been suggested to improve menopause symptoms;
- And the last group of women who refused hormonal therapy was given a vitamin D supplement (400 IU).
At the end of a year-long trial, researchers found that the women in the first three groups—or all women taking hormones—showed significant improvement in menopause symptoms compared to the women who had been taking vitamin D supplements.
Focusing on libido and sexual function, researchers then evaluated sex function changes using the McCoy Female Sexuality Questionnaire, comparing measurements made before treatment and after 12 months.
The self-administered questionnaire, comprised of 19 queries on sexual arousal, frequency of sexual contact, orgasm, satisfaction, painful intercourse, fantasies and other questions, is a diagnostic tool designed to measure sexual function in menopausal women.
Researchers noted that a year after taking DHEA and HRT, women taking these hormones reported significantly more interest in sex and more sexual activity.
Women taking tibolone also reported better sexual function, but the difference was not as considerable as for women taking DHEA or HRT, while women taking vitamin D did not experience any change in their sexual function.
“Daily oral DHEA therapy at the dose of 10 mg, HRT and tibolone all provided a significant improvement in comparison with vitamin D in sexual function and in frequency of sexual intercourse in early postmenopausal women,” Dr. Genazzani wrote in Climacteric.
Reporting on the study, Alice Walton, The Atlantic’s health and science journalist, surmised that because DHEA is a precursor hormone, it worked by increasing levels of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone—all of which play a role in sexual function. Walton has a doctoral degree in biopsychology.
She also observed that: “The results of the study sound promising, and they could well be, but the study was very small, with only about 12 women in each experimental group.”
Before any solid conclusions can be drawn about the effectiveness, safety and dosing of DHEA, larger clinical trials have to be conducted, Walton noted. “Longer-term studies will also have to determine whether DHEA given over a period of years has any adverse effects,” she said.
“It will be interesting to follow the clinical research as it develops, and determines whether DHEA might be an effective alternative to HRT,” she concluded.
Her views were echoed by Climacteric journal editor Anna Fenton.
“This is an interesting result—although we must bear in mind that this is a pilot study with a small sample,” Fenton said in a news release.
“Nevertheless, it does indicate that DHEA has potential as a therapy to help women deal with the physical discomfort of menopause, as well as helping them sexually,” she said.
And before you jump up to grab those products with “natural DHEA,” take note of Walton’s advice: “Products that advertise themselves as containing natural DHEA, like yam or soy products, are misleading, since the body cannot actually synthesize DHEA from these chemicals,” she warned.