DHEA is the acronym for dehydroepiandrosterone, a hormone produced
naturally from cholesterol in the adrenal glands of males and females.
It is a precursor to the male sex hormone testosterone. It is also
sold as an over-the-counter dietary supplement.
The human body produces very little DHEA until about the age of
seven, when production soars. It peaks in the mid-20s and starts
to decline in the early 30s. By the mid-70s, DHEA production has
dropped by about 80-90%. At all ages, DHEA levels are slightly higher
in men than women. The optimum DHEA level in a healthy adult is
750-1,250 milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL) for men and
550-980 mg/dL for women.
DHEA was first identified in 1934 and was sold over the counter
mainly as a weight loss aid until the late 1980s. Then the federal
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classified DHEA as a drug, making
it available by prescription only. The FDA reversed itself in 1994,
reclassifying DHEA as a dietary supplement obtainable without a
A 1994 study by researchers
at the University of California, San Diego looked at 30 middle-age
men and women who took 50 mg of DHEA a day for three months.
The test subjects generally reported an improved sense of well-being,
increased energy, enhanced sex drive, and an improved ability
to deal with stress. The results were widely reported by the
mass media, with several referring to DHEA as the
"fountain of youth hormone."
Despite hundreds of studies of DHEA over the past three decades,
researchers are still unclear on how the hormone works or exactly
what it does in the body. Although it is know DHEA decreases with
age, it is not known whether this constitutes a deficiency or is
because the body needs less DHEA as it ages.
The main reason so little is known about DHEA is because the hormone
is not patentable, so drug companies are unwilling to spend money
doing further research on it. Much of the research today in funded
through universities and the National Institute on Aging that maintains
a skeptical philosophy about DHEA supplementation.
Proponents of DHEA also say the hormone has
anti-aging properties that can slow the aging process and lead to
longer life. In his book, The DHEA Breakthrough: Look Younger, Live
Longer, Feel Better, biochemist Stephen Cherniske, states that DHEA
supplementation along with proper diet, vitamins, and exercise, can
prolong life. "After all, the
human body is designed to last about 120 years, and with proper care
they can all be vibrantly healthy years. What DHEA provides is the
missing link in your longevity program. It gives you a better-than-fighting
chance against the diseases that cause more than 75 percent of premature
Originally marketed as a weight loss supplement, DHEA is now promoted
as being beneficial for treating a wide variety of medical conditions,
including cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, and AIDS. It is also
purported to have anti-aging qualities. Studies in rodents and test
tubes have shown daily doses of DHEA can prevent or benefit such
conditions as cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, lupus,
obesity, and viral infections. Far fewer long-term studies have
been done in humans and the results are often conflicting. In general,
DHEA supplementation seems to be more beneficial to men than women.
Most DHEA is derived from Mexican wild yams through a chemical process.
Eating the yams will not produce the hormone. DHEA is generally
taken once daily. Dosage recommendations vary. Allopathic physicians who
support DHEA supplementation usually recommend 5-10 milligrams (mg) once
a day. Some homeopathic health practitioners recommend 10-50 mg a day.
Dr. Ray Sahelian, a physician and author of several books on dietary supplements,
also recommends "hormone holidays."
With this approach, persons would take DHEA every other day, five
days in a row and two days off, or go off it one or two weeks a
month. DHEA commonly is sold in tablets of 5mg, 10mg, 25mg, and
50mg. It also comes in available as a cream, ointment, lozenge,
and herbal tea. A bottle of 90 25-mg capsules costs $12-24.
Several studies have shown DHEA may increase the risks of prostate
cancer in men and endometrial cancer in women. Medical experts suggest
before taking DHEA supplements, individuals should have a blood
test to determine existing DHEA and other hormone (testosterone
or estrogen) levels. Also, men taking the supplement should have
regular PSA tests and women should have periodic mammograms since
DHEA may promote the growth of breast cancer.
There are several warnings associated with DHEA use. It should
not be taken by men who have a history of prostate problems or by
women with a history of breast, ovarian, or uterine cancer. It is
not recommended for anyone under age 40, or by women who are pregnant,
nursing, or who can still bear children. Women who are taking an
estrogen replacement, who have a history of heart disease, and anyone
with other significant health problems should consult their doctor
before taking DHEA.
Some side effects have been reported and are usually associated
with doses of 5 mg a day or more. These include acne, body and facial
hair growth in women, enlarged breasts in men, scalp hair loss,
anxiety, insomnia, headaches, mood changes, and fatigue. It can
cause menstrual irregularities in women under age 50, and may decrease
HDL (good cholesterol) in women. A few cases of irregular heart
rhythm have been reported in people taking 25-50 mg a day of DHEA.
DHEA functions similarly to pregnenolone, so the two should not
be taken together in full doses.
to Anti-Aging Medicine Index