DHEA: Myth or Miracle?

DHEA's effects may be solely through its conversion into other hormones such as testosterone and estrogen. Many believe it functions by boosting levels of other hormones, which may be why the effect of DHEA on an individual varies according to factors such as age and gender.

DHEA Helps Protect Against the Side Effects of Stress

Deceased DHEA levels can lead to stress

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a hormone produced by the human adrenal gland. DHEA can be converted in the body to both the "male" hormone testosterone and the "female" hormone estradiol (an estrogen). It is available in some countries over the counter, without a prescription, as a dietary supplement.

Many claims have been made regarding its benefits for the treatment or prevention of various diseases, and some have made claims that it is a "fountain of youth." However, no study has yet shown a specific, physiological role for DHEA in humans. DHEA's effects may be solely through its conversion into other hormones such as testosterone and estrogen. Many believe it functions by boosting levels of other hormones, which may be why the effect of DHEA on an individual varies according to factors such as age and gender.

DHEA levels decrease dramatically as men and women age. In fact, the average level of DHEA in the blood of an 80-year-old person is often only 10% to 20% of that of a healthy 20-year-old (Figure 1).

Figure 1: DHEA levels decrease dramatically as both men and women age.

DHEA can be measured by a simple blood test. However, as DHEA levels vary with the time of day, it is best to measure DHEA in the morning. There are many conditions for which DHEA supplementation has been studied to see if it has any health benefits, including:

  • Aging
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • HIV infection/AIDS
  • Immunity problems
  • Obesity
  • Depression

Although DHEA appears safe, long-term studies evaluating its use for more than one year have not yet been done. DHEA has some potential side effects unique to women, such as excessive facial hair growth and decreased levels of good cholesterol (HDL). A woman who has heart disease or is at risk of heart disease should definitely consult her physician before taking DHEA. Similarly, women who are at risk for breast or ovarian cancer should obtain more information and discuss DHEA supplementation carefully with their physician.

Is DHEA right for you?
The answer to this question depends on what you wish to attain by taking DHEA. The best evidence available shows that supplemental DHEA can be beneficial for reducing body fat, increasing muscle mass, and improving one's sense of well-being, sleep, and energy. Other proposed areas of potential benefit either lack evidence or need further study.

If you are concerned that your DHEA level is low, begin by having your DHEA level checked. If the blood test confirms a low DHEA level, then discuss your goals with your physician, including whether DHEA supplementation might be able to help you achieve them.

It is important to note that the studies of DHEA supplementation have been done in people who had low levels of DHEA to begin with. Therefore, if your DHEA level is normal, you may not find any benefit from DHEA supplementation.

Richard A. Bebb, MD,
in association with the MediResource Clinical Team