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What is dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)?

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 endocrine system is responsible for producing more than 50 different chemicals that control and regulate all the complex systems of the body. These chemicals, known as hormones, require a delicate balance to keep your body functioning smoothly. An important but sometimes forgotten hormone is DHEA. Read on to learn more about this hormone.

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What is DHEA hormone?

Dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, is the most prominent circulating steroid in the human body. Just like pregnenolone, DHEA and cortisol are primarily produced in the outer layers of the adrenal glands. Though smaller amounts of DHEA are produced in the ovaries and testes. DHEA is converted from cholesterol. DHEA production increases around the age of 10. DHEA levels typically peak in your 20s and then gradually decrease as you get older. To find out your DHEA level, you can take a DHEA test from the convenience of home (you collect your sample at home and mail it to a lab for testing).

The body’s production of DHEA is controlled by the brain via negative feedback. Essentially, if your DHEA levels drop, your brain notices and tells the adrenal glands to produce more. Once the DHEA levels reach a limit, the brain tells production to stop.

What does DHEA do?

Some studies do that DHEA works against cortisol to balance out the negative effects of stress. Research on DHEA-cortisol ratios suggest that a higher amount of DHEA compared to cortisol may support your tolerance for stress and its physiological effects.

Otherwise, DHEA is primarily known as a precursor hormone. Precursor hormones get converted into other hormones with a more direct effect on the body. This makes DHEA extremely powerful. While it’s quiet on its own, DHEA gets converted into potent sex hormones like testosterone and estradiol. DHEA is actually an important source of estrogen for women and the reason for estrogen in men.

High or low levels of DHEA

DHEA levels can potentially become imbalanced based on a variety of factors. As mentioned, your DHEA levels naturally go down as you get older. High levels of DHEA have been linked to polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and hair growth throughout the body (hirsutism). High DHEA levels have also been associated with congenital adrenal hyperplasia in kids. This disease affects the adrenal glands’ ability to produce certain hormones.

Low levels of DHEA can contribute to a decrease in bone mineral density and low estrogen production in women. This can lead to a wide range of issues, like a reduced sex drive, fertility problems, irregular periods, and osteoporosis (characterized by bones becoming brittle and porous). Plus high DHEA levels in women can also be related to insulin resistance and low insulin sensitivity. In men, low DHEA levels or DHEA deficiency may reduce life span, and it is also what causes high estradiol levels in males.

Should you supplement with DHEA?

DHEA is also available as a DHEA supplement that brands often push for a variety of potential purposes. This includes boosting sex drive, building muscle mass, and reducing symptoms of depression. It is also popularly touted as an anti-aging supplement.

However, these claims have little scientific evidence, and the FDA has not approved DHEA treatment or DHEA administration of any health problems. More research is necessary to determine how DHEA supplement and synthetic forms of DHEA may benefit your health.

In reality, if you experience DHEA hormone imbalances, you may have a more significant underlying health issue that needs to be addressed. If you believe you have hormonal issues, consider taking a hormone test like the Everlywell Men’s Health Test to determine your levels of DHEA and other key hormones.


References

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). Hormone Health Network. URL. Accessed August 15, 2021.

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