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.
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The human endocrine system produces more than 50 different chemicals known as hormones. These hormones play an integral role in your health and how you feel every day. Hormonal imbalances in any of these hormones can lead to severe problems.
One important hormone is dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA. While it’s easy to forget, DHEA is a necessary hormone that many other hormones in your body rely on. Learn more about DHEA and its benefits to your health.
So, what is a DHEA hormone? Just like pregnenolone, DHEA is a hormone that is naturally produced by our body which is also the most dominant circulating steroid. The Steroid refers to a category of organic compounds with a specific chemical structure.
DHEA is a steroid hormone created from the cholesterol in our adrenal gland on top of our kidneys. DHA production also happens in the ovaries and testes in smaller amounts. This production is controlled by the brain. When it detects that the DHEA levels have dipped, the brain tells the body to produce more. Once the DHEA levels increase to a certain point, the brain tells the body to back off.
In the average person, DHEA levels typically start to increase at the age of 10. Most people will reach their peak DHEA levels at the age of 20, and those levels will slowly decline as you grow older.
Recent studies suggest that DHEA and cortisol are released from the adrenal gland during times of stress. Cortisol is the primary stress hormone, and while it’s generally a good thing to have, excess levels of cortisol at a constant rate can contribute to various negative health issues.
DHEA counteracts many of these negative health effects. Research suggests that higher levels of DHEA to cortisol helps you better cope with stress, while a lower DHEA/cortisol ratio may make you more vulnerable to the effects of stress.
However, in its main function, DHEA is a hormone precursor to the sex hormone. A precursor is essentially a substance that gets converted into something else. In this case, DHEA is a precursor to several more powerful hormones, including testosterone and estradiol (a type of estrogen). But, if you're wondering what causes high estradiol levels in males, there are many reasons that might contribute to it, including the food you eat.
In fact, DHEA is a crucial source of estrogen in women, and low DHEA levels can frequently contribute to low estrogen.
Some claims suggest supplementing DHEA for a variety of potential benefits. This includes increased bone density, muscle mass and energy, weight loss or reduced body fat, a higher sex drive, and better immune function. Most prominently, claims suggest DHEA can help slow down the aging process. Thus far, none of these claims are scientifically or medically proven.
Some studies suggest that DHEA may be able to help with depression, osteoporosis, infertility, and vaginal atrophy. However, the FDA has not approved DHEA as an alternative treatment for any of these problems. Other researchers have also discovered that people administered with DHEA supplementation showed increased insulin sensitivity and cognitive function.
Essentially, no expert recommends DHEA supplementation, which can come with potential negative side effects. Using supplemental DHEA can increase androgen levels and the risk of hormone-sensitive cancers, like breast cancer, prostate cancer, and ovarian cancer.
Even with potentially low DHEA levels, most healthcare providers would suggest other forms of DHEA therapy or treatment like dehydroepiandrosterone replacement. For example, if low DHEA level is contributing to low estrogen, you may benefit more from estrogen hormone therapy than from DHEA supplements.
DHEA is still an incredibly important hormone, and if you think your DHEA levels are low or otherwise unbalanced, it may be worth getting your hormones tested, like with the Everlywell Men’s Health Test. If you get back any abnormal results, you can consult your doctor and figure out what to do next.