Sex After Menopause: The Hormone That Could Make It Better

In a study, DHEA appeared to ease the severity of menopause symptoms, including one of the most frustrating: decreased sexual appetite.

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For some women going through menopause, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can mean the difference between unbearable and manageable symptoms. But HRT has been getting a lot of negative press recently, as studies have shown increased risk for cancer, heart disease, and stroke.

Some women, wary of these risks, may be looking for another option. Now there could be one. The adrenal hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) appears to ease the severity of menopause symptoms, including a particularly frustrating one for many women: decreased sexual function. In women and in men, DHEA serves as a precursor hormone from which other reproductive hormones, like estrogen and testosterone, are synthesized.

The new study followed 48 women who had been suffering from menopause symptoms for a year. The women were divided into four groups. One group took low-dose DHEA; one took standard estrogen-progesterone HRT; one group took a synthetic hormone called tibolone, which has previously been suggested to improve menopause symptoms; and the last took a vitamin D supplement.

At the end of a year-long period, the women in the first three groups -- that is, those taking hormones of any sort -- had significantly improved menopause symptoms compared to the women who had been taking vitamin D supplements.

Singling out sexual function, the researchers observed that women taking DHEA and HRT reported significantly more interest in sex and more sexual activity than before beginning the hormones. The women taking tibolone also reported better sexual function, but the difference was not as great as for women taking DHEA or HRT. There was no change in the women taking vitamin D.

Because it is a precursor hormone, DHEA may work by increasing levels of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, all of which could play a role in sexual function. 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.

"This is an interesting result," said Climacteric journal editor Anna Fenton in a news release, "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."

Larger clinical trials will of course be needed before any solid conclusions can be drawn about the effectiveness, safety, and dosing of DHEA. Longer-term studies will also have to determine whether DHEA given over a period of years has any adverse effects. It is important to point out that products advertising that they contain natural DHEA, like yam or soy products, are misleading, since the body cannot actually synthesize DHEA from these chemicals. It will be interesting to follow the clinical research as it develops, and determines whether DHEA might be an effective alternative to HRT.

The research was carried out by a team at the University of Pisa, and published in the December 2011 issue of Climacteric.

Image: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock.

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