Supplements: Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)

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Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is the most abundant androgen (a male steroid hormone) secreted by the adrenal glands, and to some extent, by the ovaries and testes. It is a precursor for other steroid hormones, such as testosterone and estrogen. Peak levels of DHEA occur at age 25. By age 80, DHEA levels decrease to 10 to 20 percent of the peak level. DHEA has been labeled an antiaging hormone because deficiencies in old age may make individuals more susceptible to cancer of the breast, prostate, and bladder; atherosclerosis; high blood pressure; autoimmune diseases (for example, diabetes, lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis); osteoporosis; high cholesterol; obesity; memory disturbances; chronic fatigue; and other manifestations of aging. Older individuals with higher DHEA levels are often in better heath than those with lower levels. Thus, the two most important factors concerning DHEA are that it declines in old age and that it is deficient in several diseases.


  • Heart disease. In one study, healthy men with low levels of DHEA were three times more likely to die of heart disease than those with high levels of DHEA.
  • Aging. Significant positive changes (for example, less muscle wasting, less memory loss, improved mood, and energy) have been seen in some elderly men given DHEA, but more extensive research trials are necessary to determine extent of association.
  • Osteoporosis. DHEA increases bone mass in postmenopausal women. However, supplementation is not recommended until more extensive human trials have been conducted.
  • Autoimmune disease. Low levels of DHEA have been found in patients with autoimmune disorders (for example, lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, ulcerative colitis, AIDS). DHEA supplements in patients with autoimmune disorders improved their stamina and overall sense of well-being. In particular, patients with lupus treated with DHEA showed improved kidney function.
  • Depression. DHEA has been used experimentally in depressed patients who demonstrated improvement in both depression and memory.
  • AIDS. DHEA treatment in people with AIDS may have promise because low DHEA levels have been linked to decreased immune function. However, controlled clinical trials have not yet been conducted to investigate this hypothesis.
  • Performance enhancement. Because DHEA is believed to build muscle mass, reduce fat, and reduce recovery time following injury, it is popular with athletes. However, human studies are needed to verify these claims. DHEA is also used to enhance sexual performance.

Dietary Sources

Most of the DHEA on the market is made in laboratories from sterols (especially diosgenin) extracted from wild yams found in Mexico.

Other Forms

Some extracts from wild yams are marketed as "natural DHEA." These extracts of diosgenin are believed by some to be converted into DHEA by the body. However, because it takes several chemical reactions to covert diosgenin into DHEA, it is unlikely that the body can make this conversion.

How to Take It

DHEA is available in capsules, chewing gum, and drops that are placed under the tongue. It is recommended that you take only "pharmaceutical grade" DHEA.


High doses of DHEA may inhibit the body's natural ability to synthesize DHEA and may be toxic to liver cells. Because DHEA increases the production of the male hormone testosterone, women should be aware of any signs of masculinization (for example, loss of hair on the head, hair growth on the face, weight gain around the waist, or acne), and men should be aware of signs of excess testosterone (for example, testicular wasting, sexual aggressiveness, aggressive tendencies, male pattern baldness, and high blood pressure).

Because DHEA is a precursor of estrogen and testosterone, patients with cancers stimulated by hormones (for example, breast, prostate, ovarian, testicular) should avoid DHEA.

DHEA is not recommended for people under 40 years of age, unless DHEA levels are known to be low (less than 130 mg/dL in women and less than 180 mg/dL in men).

The International Olympic Committee and National Football League recently banned the use of DHEA by athletes because its effects are very similar to those of anabolic steroids.

Possible Interactions

One study has indicated that vitamin E may protect against potential degenerative damage to the liver associated with DHEA treatment. Alcohol may increase the effects of DHEA.

Excerpt from Integrative Medicine Access Copyright © 1999 Integrative Medicine Communications

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Updated on: 09/07/12