Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a natural steroid hormone, one of the hormones produced by the adrenal glands. After being secreted by the adrenal glands, it circulates in the bloodstream as DHEA-sulfate (DHEAS) and is converted as needed into other hormones. DHEA is chemically similar to testosterone and estrogen and is easily converted into those hormones. DHEA production peaks in early adulthood and declines in production with age in both men and women. Therefore, many diseases which correlate with age also correlate with low levels of DHEA production. Advocates of DHEA recommend it to prevent the effects of aging. Long-term effects of self-medicating by using DHEA supplements may be beneficial, neutral, or harmful, but it is unlikely that DHEA supplements will affect each individual in the same way. DHEA is produced by the adrenal glands. A synthetic form of this hormone is also available as a supplement in tablet, capsule, liquid, and sublingual form.
DHEA often has different effects in men, premenopausal women, and postmenopausal women. (66). Supplementation with DHEA-S (a form of DHEA) has resulted in increased levels of testosterone and androstenedione, two steroid hormones. (67). Increasing DHEA may increase testosterone, which in men may lead to prostate enlargement and in women may lead to facial hair. Increasing estrogen may help prevent osteoporosis or heart disease but may increase the risk of breast cancer. The conversion of DHEA into testosterone may account for the fact that low blood levels of DHEA have been reported in some men with erectile dysfunction.(68). The findings of a double-blind trial using 50 mg supplements of DHEA taken daily for six months suggests that DHEA may improve erectile function in some men. (69). Men under 60 years of age with erectile dysfunction have been found to have lower DHEAS levels than men without the condition. (70).
DHEA has been shown to increase immunity. A group of elderly men with low DHEA levels who were given 50 mg of DHEA per day for 20 weeks experienced a significant activation of immune function. (71). Postmenopausal women have also shown increased immune functioning in just three weeks when given DHEA in double-blind research. (72).
DHEA may play some role in protecting against depression. Low DHEA levels have been reported in older women suffering from this condition, though at least one report has linked severe depression to increased DHEA levels. After six months using 50 mg DHEA per day, “a remarkable increase in perceived physical and psychological well-being” was reported in both men and women in one double-blind trial. (73). In another double-blind trial, after only six weeks of taking DHEA at levels up to 90 mg per day, at least a 50% reduction in depression was seen in 5 of 11 participants. (74). Other researchers have reported dramatic reductions in depression at extremely high amounts of DHEA (90-450 mg per day) given for six weeks to adults who first became depressed after age 40 (in men) or at the time of menopause (in women) in a double-blind trial. (75). Limiting supplementation to only two weeks is inadequate in treating people with depression. (76).
The question of who should take this hormone remains controversial. Some experts believe that daily intakes of 5-15 mg of DHEA for women and 10-30 mg for men are appropriate amounts for people with deficient blood levels of DHEA or DHEAS. (77). While a few researchers suggest supplementation with as much as 50 mg per day in postmenopausal women,(78). others consider this level excessive.
Standard dosage is 50 mg, twice a day (100 mg). (79). People should consult a doctor to have DHEA levels monitored before and during supplementation. Healthy people with normal blood levels of DHEA or DHEAS should not take this hormone until more is known about its effects. However, some doctors recommend DHEA supplementation for selected people with depression, autoimmune diseases, or other problems, even if their blood levels are normal.