Two photos side by side: person using finger prick to collect blood sample for Everlywell test; laboratory technicians analyzing sample

An overview of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and cortisol

Medically reviewed by Neka Miller, PhD on August 15, 2021. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

Your body produces about 50 different hormones, each of which serves a specific role in supporting your overall health and maintaining every physiological function, from repairing muscle tissue to metabolizing food components. A hormonal imbalance can contribute to serious problems, and they may point to more serious underlying issues.

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is just one of these ever-important hormones. Studies show that it may even have a direct relationship with cortisol, the primary hormone involved in stress. Learn more about DHEA and its potential link with cortisol below.

Check in on your DHEA levels from the convenience of home with the at-home Men’s Health Test.

What is DHEA?

So, what is the DHEA hormone? Much like pregnenolone, dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, is a hormone primarily produced in the adrenal glands from cholesterol, though smaller amounts are produced in the ovaries and testes. It is the highest circulating steroid in your body. DHEA levels gradually increase from age 10 onwards, typically peaking in a person’s 20s. As you get older, DHEA levels naturally decrease.

What are the benefits of DHEA? Well, DHEA is technically known as a precursor hormone. A precursor hormone is a chemical that gets converted into different hormones in the body. DHEA doesn’t do much on its own, but it is extremely important because it is a precursor to testosterone, estradiol, and other sex hormones. DHEA is a crucial source of estrogen in men. To make sure you can track any signs of DHEA imbalance, you can take the DHEA sulfate test to find out your DHEA levels.

Other anecdotal studies suggest the use of synthetic, supplemental forms of DHEA for a variety of conditions, including depression, infertility, and Alzheimer’s. DHEA has been particularly popular for claims suggesting that it can slow down aging and support weight loss. However, there is little scientific evidence to support these claims, and the FDA hasn’t approved DHEA as a treatment for any health problems.

Your brain controls the production of DHEA via what’s known as “negative feedback.” Essentially, when your DHEA levels start to go down, your body signals your brain, which then signals the adrenal glands to start producing more DHEA. Once DHEA levels hit a certain level, the brain tells the system to stop producing the hormone.

What is Cortisol?

Just like DHEA, cortisol is a steroid hormone that is naturally produced in your adrenal gland. Cortisol production and secretion are controlled by the adrenal glands, pituitary gland, and hypothalamus. Most cells in the body have cortisol receptors.

Cortisol primarily plays a role in your stress response, which is why it is known so commonly as the “stress hormone.” In times of crisis or stress, your adrenal gland releases cortisol secretion, which increases your heart rate, blood sugar levels, blood pressure, breathing, and muscle tension.

This is classically known as your fight-or-flight response, an instinctual reaction that prepares you to run or stand your ground (hence the increased heart rate and muscle tension). Cortisol also shuts down systems that aren’t necessary in times of crisis, including the digestive system and reproductive system.

While cortisol does play an integral role in stress, which is necessary and important in its own way, this hormone also plays a function in numerous other systems. The hormone contributes to memory formation, blood sugar regulation, and metabolism, and it helps to reduce inflammation and control the body’s salt and water balance. In pregnant people, cortisol supports the developing fetus.

Elevated cortisol does pose potential health problems. This can potentially come from tumors on the adrenal or pituitary glands, resulting in what we call the Cushing syndrome, or it can simply come from overworking or constant stressors in life. Remember, cortisol is designed to shut down unnecessary processes to ensure your immediate survival. While that might be fine when you are in immediate danger, it’s less ideal when you’re just existing at home.

Prolonged periods of elevated cortisol can contribute to:

  • High blood pressure
  • Blood sugar imbalances
  • Reduced immune function
  • Suppressed thyroid function
  • Reduced muscle tissue
  • Sleep issues

Some of these effects of a high cortisol level can increase your risk of other medical conditions, like metabolic syndrome, high cholesterol, and heart problems. High cortisol levels (which can be detected with a cortisol test) can also affect other aspects of your health, including your mental and emotional health.

The Relationship Between DHEA and Cortisol

DHEA and cortisol are the most abundant hormones released by the adrenal glands, and both play a role in the stress response. Together, cortisol and DHEA enable the physiological changes associated with stress, and both mediate short- and long-term responses to stress.

However, where cortisol is the hormone that causes high blood pressure, increased breathing, and other physiological responses, DHEA works to set things right. Essentially, DHEA opposes or offsets the effects of cortisol. Research on stress suggests that understanding the DHEA-cortisol ratio may be the key to understanding how we respond to stress.

Studies indicate that a high DHEA-cortisol ratio (meaning higher DHEA levels than cortisol levels) may reduce the negative impacts of stress. By comparison, subjects with a low DHEA-cortisol ratio were more vulnerable to the symptoms of stress (in the case of this study, this included dissociation and reduced cognitive performance).

Furthermore, higher cortisol levels than DHEA levels have been implicated in major depressive disorder. Another study also suggests a link between the cortisol-DHEA ratio and metabolic syndrome, which refers to a series of conditions that increase your risk of cardiovascular problems and other health conditions.

A higher cortisol-DHEA ratio (cortisol levels that are higher than DHEA levels) may suggest an increased risk of metabolic syndrome. Interestingly, higher DHEA levels appeared to have a potentially protective effect against metabolic syndrome.

Maintaining Your DHEA-Cortisol Ratio

While DHEA is the more beneficial of the two hormones here, the key is mostly maintaining a balanced ratio. Too much DHEA can contribute to potential issues. Higher DHEA levels have been linked to hirsutism and polycystic ovary syndrome in cis women. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia in children also coincides with higher DHEA levels. Lower DHEA levels may contribute to low libido and osteoporosis.

As mentioned, most experts don’t recommend DHEA supplementation. Low or high levels of DHEA are more often associated with underlying health conditions, like tumors on specific glands.

The other side of the equation is cortisol, which tends to be a bit easier to manage. Much of this comes down to managing your everyday stress. To regulate your cortisol levels, it’s important to develop constructive stress management techniques that relax the body and mind. This can include:

  • Breathing exercises
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Self-hypnosis
  • Sex

One of the best ways to control your stress level is regular exercise. There are no hard and fast rules, but most experts recommend about 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week. Find an activity and routine that is enjoyable and sustainable but still challenging.

DHEA and cortisol are two important hormones in your arsenal. If changes in lifestyle aren’t enough and you suspect hormonal issues, it may be worth testing your levels with the Everlywell Men’s Health Test. This at-home test measures cortisol, DHEA, estradiol, and free testosterone, all of which can affect your mood, energy, muscle mass, weight, and libido.

What Are the Benefits of Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)?

What Is Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)?

Understanding Androgen Deficiency: What It Is, Related Symptoms, and More

Everlywell makes lab testing easy and convenient with at-home collection and digital results in days. Learn More