DHEA

Last Updated: January 9, 2024

DHEA is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands. It’s a precursor to (i.e., is made into) estrogen and testosterone, and can exert weak benefits on its own. As an “antiaging” or performance enhancing supplement, its benefits are inconsistent.

DHEA is most often used for

What is DHEA?

The body produces 5–8 grams of DHEA every day, mostly in the adrenal glands. DHEA is made from another steroid hormone, pregnenolone, which itself is made from cholesterol.[1] In humans, DHEA is the second most abundant steroid after its sulfate ester, DHEA-S.[2] Rather than DHEA levels, blood tests usually measure DHEA-S levels, which are about a hundred times higher and fluctuate less during the day.[1]

The secretion of DHEA or supplementation with DHEA leads to increased levels of DHEA-S, a hydrophilic storage form of DHEA that stays in circulation. DHEA is the form that is transported into the tissues to be converted into the sex hormones (e.g., androgens and estrogens). Both DHEA and DHEA-S decrease significantly with age, with people in their 70s having less than 20% of the peak DHEA-S levels of young adults.[2][3][4][5] Since DHEA and DHEA-S are the most abundant circulating steroids in the body, and they decline with age, there is speculation that supplementation with DHEA and/or DHEA-S may reduce age-related declines in health.[2][6]

What are DHEA’s main benefits?

The strongest evidence for DHEA is for increasing estrogens and androgens (e.g., testosterone) in women over 60, and for improving postmenopausal symptoms.[7][8][9] However, DHEA might also increase testosterone levels in younger (<60 years old) populations.[7] While the evidence that DHEA supplementation increases androgens is fairly consistent,[10][9][1][11] the evidence that DHEA supplementation increases estrogens is as consistent, if not more so.[9][1][11] However, these androgen and estrogen increases tend to be small; DHEA supplementation has had no clinical effect on muscle strength, muscle size, fat loss,[12][13][14] or sexual function in older men.[1]

What are DHEA’s main drawbacks?

DHEA is well-tolerated, but may cause side effects by increasing estrogen or testosterone levels. For example, in a study of postmenopausal women, 3 of 38 women in the DHEA group experienced acne, and 2 of 38 experienced facial hair growth.[15] In another study, the researchers noted an increase in voice lowering, another common effect of testosterone supplementation in women, among the DHEA group as compared to the placebo group.[16]

Supplementation with testosterone itself may adversely affect cardiovascular risk factors.[17] However, trials examining cardiovascular-risk-related outcomes (blood pressure[14] and liver enzymes[18]) have found no change after DHEA supplementation.

There are commonly occurring associations between sex hormones and the risk of certain types of cancer. For example, supplemental estrogen may increase the risk of some breast and gynecological cancers, and supplemental testosterone and its metabolite, dihydrotestosterone (DHT), may increase the risk of prostate cancer. For instance, one meta-analysis reported a 23% increased risk of breast cancer in participants who had used hormone replacement therapy (HRT).[19] Another meta-analysis examined exercise, HRT, and breast cancer risk. This study found that women who exercised the most reduced their risk of breast cancer—with the exception of women who also used HRT, who saw no exercise-related reduction in their breast cancer risk.[20] Furthermore, an increased risk of breast cancer recurrence was associated with HRT in hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer survivors.[21]

With regard to DHEA and gynecological cancers, the evidence is less clear. One study reported that in participants with endometrial cancer, increased DHEA and DHEA-S levels were noted in participants who survived longer, compared to participants with shorter survival duration.[22] Larger, stronger studies note that the evidence linking estrogen-containing HRT with endometrial cancer is so weak that it does not suggest significant harm, though the researchers noted a lack of high-quality evidence in certain areas.[23][24][25][26]

One meta-analysis reported no association between the risk of prostate cancer and DHEA-S levels, and also found no association with other androgens such as testosterone and DHT,[27] which have sometimes, but not consistently, been found to be associated with prostate cancer risk.[28] Furthermore, while this meta-analysis did find a relationship between sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG) and prostate cancer risk, DHEA does not tend to affect SHBG levels.[29][10]

Based on the possible increased risks of breast cancer, anyone supplementing with DHEA should discuss their plans with their doctor, with whom the benefits and risks of DHEA supplementation, and the resultant possible changes in sex hormones, can be appropriately evaluated for their individual situation.

How does DHEA work?

DHEA is believed to work indirectly by being converted to androgens or estrogens in peripheral target cells, and might theoretically also work directly by stimulating neurotransmitter receptors in the brain.[3]

What else is DHEA known as?
Note that DHEA is also known as:
  • DHEA
  • Pradesterone
  • Hydroxyandrosterone
  • 3β-Hydroxy-5-Androstene-17-one
  • Dehydroepiandrosterone
DHEA should not be confused with:
Dosage information

Supplementation of DHEA appears to be effective in persons over 40 in the dosage range of 25-50mg, while prolonged usage of 100mg appears to be safe in this demographic. While the usage of DHEA in young persons for the purpose of testosterone enhancement is not clear, it tends to be used at 200mg for this purpose.

DHEA may require a prescription in certain countries (such as Canada).

Examine Database: DHEA