Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)

Comprehensive information on DHEA supplements for impotence in men, reducing risk of osteoporosis in women with anorexia and treating depression. Learn about the usage, dosage, side-effects of DHEA.

Comprehensive information on DHEA supplements for impotence in men, reducing risk of osteoporosis in women with anorexia and treating depression. Learn about the usage, dosage, side-effects of DHEA.


Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is the most abundant androgen (male steroid hormone) secreted by the adrenal glands (small hormone producing glands which sit on top of the kidneys), and to a lesser extent, by the ovaries and testes. DHEA can also be converted into other steroid hormones, including testosterone and estrogen. Considerable interest in DHEA has developed in recent years with reports that it may play a role in the aging process. Circulating levels of DHEA peak at age 25 and then steadily decline with age. DHEA levels in 70-year-old individuals tend to be roughly 80 percent lower than those in young adults.

Some researchers consider DHEA a possible anti-aging hormone because DHEA deficiencies in older individuals have been associated with a number of medical conditions including breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, impaired memory and mental function, and osteoporosis. In addition, population-based studies have suggested that people with higher DHEA levels tend to live longer, healthier lives than those with lower levels of DHEA. However, low levels of DHEA being linked to certain diseases does not necessarily mean that DHEA supplements will reduce the risk or improve the outcome of these conditions.


The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) removed DHEA supplements from the market in 1985 due to false claims about health benefits. However, since the passing of the US Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, DHEA has made its way back on the market and its popularity continues to grow. Despite this growth and attention, support for the health claims, particularly as tested on people, is lacking. Plus, given that DHEA products are sold as dietary supplements, there is no control over their contents or the manufacturing practices of the companies that make the supplements. One independent evaluation found that the amount of DHEA in over the counter products ranged from 0% to 150% of what the content stated on the label.



DHEA for Aging
Given that DHEA levels decline with advancing age, some researchers have investigated whether DHEA supplementation may slow or prevent age-related declines in mental and physical function. Preliminary results from the DHEAge study in France suggest that the hormone may slow bone loss, improve skin health, and enhance sexual drive in aging adults, particularly women older than 70 years of age. Animal studies that have shown a boost in memory for older rats taking DHEA supplements. Results from human studies, however, have been conflicting. Some studies have shown that DHEA improves learning and memory in those with low DHEA levels, but other studies have failed to detect any significant cognitive effects from DHEA supplementation. Further studies are needed to determine whether DHEA supplementation helps prevent or slow medical conditions associated with the aging process.

DHEA for Adrenal Insufficiency
As mentioned earlier, DHEA is one of the hormones made in the adrenal glands. When the adrenal glands do not make enough hormones, this is called adrenal insufficiency. Women with this condition who were given DHEA supplements reported improved sexuality and sense of well-being (including decreased feelings of depression and anxiety). Only a doctor can determine if you have adrenal insufficiency and if DHEA, along with other hormones, is needed. Adrenal insufficiency can be a medical emergency, particularly when first diagnosed. This is especially the case if your blood pressure is low, which can cause you to experience dizziness or lightheadedness. Another reason to seek medical attention right away in the case of adrenal insufficiency is swelling of the ankles or legs.

DHEA for Impotence
Studies suggest that DHEA supplementation may help impotent men have and sustain an erection.

DHEA for Osteoporosis
Studies have shown that DHEA cream applied to the inner thigh may boost bone density in older women.

DHEA for Anorexia Nervosa
Women with anorexia nervosa are at increased risk for bone fractures and can develop osteoporosis at a younger age than women without eating disorders. It has been observed that adolescents and young adults with anorexia nervosa tend to have low levels of DHEA. Some studies suggest that DHEA may help protect against bone loss in people who are anorexic.

DHEA for Athletic Performance
Although DHEA supplements are widely used by athletes and body builders to boost muscle mass and burn fat, there is little evidence to support these claims. There are no published studies of the long-term effects of taking DHEA, particularly in the large doses used by athletes. Plus, the building blocks of testosterone, including DHEA, may adversely affect cholesterol in male athletes by lowering HDL ("good") cholesterol.

DHEA for Lupus
Lupus is an autoimmune disorder. Autoimmune diseases are a group of conditions in which a person's antibodies attack a part of their own body because the immune system believes the body part is foreign. Studies have shown that DHEA helps regulate the immune system and may play a role in the prevention and/or treatment of certain autoimmune diseases.

A recent review of scientific literature found that DHEA supplementation may reduce the need for medications and the frequency of flare-ups, enhance mental function, and boost bone mass in women with lupus. Further studies are needed to determine whether DHEA is safe and effective for both men and women with this condition, however.

DHEA levels tend to be low in individuals infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and these levels decline even further as the disease progresses. In one small study, DHEA supplementation improved mental function in men and women infected with HIV. However, studies have yet to demonstrate whether DHEA supplementation can improve immune function in people with this condition.

DHEA for Depression
In a preliminary study of individuals with major depression, DHEA significantly improved symptoms of depression compared to placebo. However, results of this study and others conducted to date on DHEA and depression are not conclusive. The potential value of using DHEA for depression, therefore, remains unclear, and the long-term effects of taking this supplement are unknown.


DHEA for Obesity
The results of studies using DHEA to treat overweight people have been conflicting. While animal studies have found DHEA to be effective in reducing body weight, studies of men and women showed that DHEA produced no change in total body weight, although total body fat and LDL ("bad") cholesterol did improve. These differences may be due to the fact that higher dosages were used in the animal studies than in the human studies (such high doses would cause intolerable side effects in people). Further studies are needed to determine whether DHEA is an effective way to reduce body weight in obese people. Until the safety and effectiveness of DHEA is fully tested, it is best not to use this supplement for weight loss.

DHEA for Menopause
DHEA has gained some popularity among peri-menopausal women. They often used the supplement to alleviate symptoms of menopause including decreased sex drive, diminished skin tone, and vaginal dryness. In one recent study, DHEA supplements did raise levels of certain hormones in post-menopausal women. However, clinical studies regarding the value of DHEA for improving menopause symptoms have had conflicting results.

Those who believe in the use of DHEA claim that it relieves the menopausal symptoms described above without increasing the risk of breast cancer or cancer of the endometrium (lining to the uterus). The risk of each of these cancers may be increased with regular, prescription hormone replacement therapy. There is no proof, however, that DHEA does not stimulate these cancers as well. Women with breast cancer tend to have low levels of this hormone in their bodies. But replacement may lead to either inhibition or stimulation of growth of breast cancer cells.

DHEA for Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
DHEA levels appear to be low in people with ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. It is premature to say whether DHEA supplements have any impact, positive or negative, on these two bowel diseases.


Dietary Sources of DHEA

DHEA is a hormone produced in the body and is not obtained through the diet.


Available Forms

Most DHEA supplements are produced in laboratories from diosgenin, a plant sterol extracted from Mexican wild yams. Some extracts from wild yams are marketed as "natural DHEA." Advertisers claim that these "natural" extracts of diosgenin are converted into DHEA by the body. However, it takes several chemical reactions to convert diosgenin into DHEA, and there is no evidence that the body can make this conversion. For this reason, it is best to look for labels that list DHEA rather than diosgenin or wild yam extract. Also, it is important to select products that state it is pharmaceutical grade.

One way to avoid purchasing a product with contaminated DHEA is to purchase it through a professional healthcare provider.

DHEA is available in capsules, chewing gum, drops that are placed under the tongue, and topical creams.

How to Take DHEA

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


DHEA supplements should not be used in children.


Dosages for men and women differ. Men can safely take up to 50 mg/day, but women should generally not take more than 25 mg/day, although up to 50 mg has been used for women with anorexia, adrenal insufficiency, and other medical conditions under medical supervision. DHEA is produced by the body primarily in the morning hours. Taking DHEA in the morning will mimic the natural rhythm of DHEA production. Positive effects have been noted at dosages as low as 5 mg/day and the lower the dose the better.



Because of the potential for side effects and interactions with medications, dietary supplements should be taken only under the supervision of a knowledgeable healthcare provider.

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). People taking DHEA should have their blood levels monitored every 6 months.

No studies have been conducted on the long-term safety of DHEA.

Because DHEA is a precursor of estrogen and testosterone, patients with cancers affected by hormones (such as breast, prostate, ovarian, and testicular cancer) should avoid this hormone supplement.

High doses of DHEA may inhibit the body's natural ability to make the hormone and also may be toxic to liver cells. At least one case of hepatitis has been reported.


DHEA increases the production of the male hormone testosterone, so women should be aware of the risk of developing signs of masculinization (such as loss of hair on the head, deepening of the voice, hair growth on the face, weight gain around the waist, or acne), and men should be aware of the risks of excess testosterone (such as shrinkage of the testicles, aggressive tendencies including sexual aggression, male pattern baldness, and high blood pressure). Notify your health care provider if any of these symptoms occur.

Other adverse effects that have been reported include high blood pressure and reduced HDL ("good") cholesterol.

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

If you are currently being treated with any of the following medications, you should not use DHEA without first talking to your healthcare provider.

AZT (Zidovudine)
In a laboratory study, DHEA enhanced the effectiveness of an HIV medication known as AZT. However, scientific studies in humans are needed before DHEA can be used for this purpose in people.

Animal studies suggest that DHEA may increase the effects of barbiturates, a class of medications often used to treat sleep disorders including butabarbital, mephobarbital, pentobarbital, and phenobarbital. However, scientific studies in humans are needed before it is known whether this same effect occurs in people and whether it is safe for DHEA and barbiturates to be used together.

An animal study indicates that DHEA may increase the effectiveness of an anti-cancer medication known as cisplatin; further studies are needed to know if this effect applies to people.

Laboratory studies suggest that DHEA may increase the effects of prednisolone, a steroid medication used to treat inflammation and other disorders. Additional research is needed to determine if this effect applies to people.


It is possible that DHEA may influence the level of estrogen in the body. For this reason, some women on estrogen replacement therapy may need to adjust their dosage. This should be discussed with your healthcare provider.

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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, December 23). Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 21 from

Last Updated: July 10, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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