What Is DHEA?

DHEA may help fight depression, shield bone health, and more

DHEA capsules, tablets, cream, and vaginal suppository

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a steroid hormone found naturally in your body. It is made in the adrenal glands, which are small glands at the top of your kidneys. You can also get DHEA from dietary supplements. These offer a synthetic form of the hormone produced from diosgenin, a substance found in soy and wild yams.

Proponents suggest that taking DHEA in supplement form can boost your levels of the hormones estrogen and testosterone and—in turn—protect against health problems associated with hormone imbalances and/or aging-related declines in hormone levels.

This article explains the possible benefits and risks of using DHEA supplements, as well as how to take supplements safely and effectively.

Uses

DHEA is converted into male and female sex hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone.

Low levels of DHEA have been detected in some individuals with conditions like diabetes, breast cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, and kidney disease. This has led to interest in using DHEA supplements as alternative remedies to treat or prevent those conditions.

DHEA is sometimes used as a supplement by people with the following health problems. However, many of these are not yet supported by research:

DHEA is also said by some to slow the aging process, improve sports performance, enhance sex drive, promote weight loss, and bolster the immune system.

In addition, DHEA supplements are frequently marketed as testosterone-boosting agents and used for such purposes as increasing muscle mass and reducing fat mass.

Importantly, the FDA has not approved DHEA for the treatment of any condition.

Possible Benefits

Despite the many claims about DHEA supplements, the evidence about its benefits is not conclusive. Here's a look at some of the available research.

Osteoporosis

Scientific studies evaluating DHEA's effects on bone health have yielded mixed results.

In one study, researchers measured the bone mineral density of healthy men and women and found that those with the highest blood levels of DHEA had a significantly higher bone mineral density (compared to those with the lowest DHEA levels).

On the other hand, an earlier study had suggested that DHEA supplements might improve bone mineral density in women but not men.

In that study, 225 healthy adults (ages 55 to 85) took either DHEA supplements or a placebo, or sham treatment, every day for one year. At the study's end, DHEA appeared to have had a positive effect on some measures of bone mineral density in female participants. Male participants, however, showed no significant changes in bone mineral density following treatment with DHEA.

Depression

DHEA may help those being treated for depression, according to a research review published in Current Drug Targets in 2014.

In their analysis of 22 previously published studies, the review's authors found that patients with depression made significant improvements when they took DHEA supplements. What's more, the review found that DHEA may relieve depressive symptoms in people with conditions like schizophrenia and anorexia nervosa.

Other Uses

Early research indicates that DHEA might have effects in the treatment of a number of other health conditions, including chronic fatigue syndrome, menopausal symptoms, and metabolic syndrome.

However, further research is needed before DHEA can be recommended in the treatment of any of these conditions.

Recap

DHEA is a hormone that affects other hormones. Supplements have been studied for their potential to help people with a variety of health issues. There are mixed findings related to their ability to improve bone density. However, they show promise for helping treat depression. More research on these and other uses is needed.

Possible Side Effects

Because DHEA is a hormone, it should only be used under the supervision of a qualified health practitioner. If not used under a doctor's care or if dosed incorrectly, DHEA can cause side effects that include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Acne
  • Breast tenderness
  • Deepening of the voice in women
  • Facial hair growth
  • Fatigue
  • Greasy or oily skin
  • Hair loss
  • Heart palpitations
  • High blood pressure
  • Insomnia
  • Irregular or rapid heartbeats
  • Irregular menstruation
  • Male pattern baldness
  • Mood disturbance
  • Nasal congestion
  • Shrinkage of the testicles
  • Skin itching
  • Urinary urgency
  • Increased aggression
  • Weight gain around the waist

Children and pregnant or nursing women should not take DHEA supplements. Those with a history of heart disease or stroke should avoid DHEA supplements as well.

DHEA may also alter the production of cholesterol and hormones such as insulin, thyroid hormones, and adrenal hormones.

People with liver disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, thyroid disorders, blood clotting disorders, hormonal disorders, or hormone-sensitive conditions (such as breast cancer and prostate cancer) should take caution when using DHEA.

High DHEA levels have been associated with psychotic disorders. People with or at risk for psychiatric disorders should only use DHEA under the supervision of their healthcare provider.

Interactions

DHEA supplements should not be taken with the following drugs, as it may cause reactions, be harmful to the liver, or interfere with the drug's effectiveness:

  • Anastrozole (Arimidex)
  • Anticoagulant and antiplatelet drugs such as aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Voltaren (diclofenac) and Advil (ibuprofen), heparin, Coumadin (warfarin), Plavix (clopidogrel), Eliquis (apixaban), and others
  • Antidepressants such as Prozac (fluoxetine), Paxil (paroxetine), Zoloft (sertraline), Celexa (citalopram), Cybalta (duloxetine), and others
  • Aromasin (exemestane)
  • Faslodex (fulvestrant)
  • Insulin
  • Femara (letrozole)
  • Medications changed by the liver, such as Mevacor (lovastatin), Zovor (simvastatin), Nizoral (ketoconazole), and many others
  • Nolvadex (tamoxifen)
  • Halcion (triazolam)

Recap

Too much DHEA has the potential to cause serious problems. Work with your doctor to ensure that DHEA supplements will not interfere with other medication you might be taking and that you take the correct dose for you.

DHEA vaginal suppository

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak 

Dosage and Preparation 

There is no recommended daily allowance for DHEA supplements. There is some evidence to recommend the following dosages for these specific conditions:

  • Aging skin: 50 milligrams (mg) of DHEA taken by mouth daily for one year or a 1% DHEA cream applied to the face and hands twice daily for up to four months
  • Depression: 30 mg to 500 mg of DHEA taken by mouth daily for six to eight weeks either alone or together with antidepressant drugs
  • Vaginal thinning: Vaginal inserts containing 0.25% to 1% DHEA used once daily for 12 weeks (Intrarosa, a specific vaginal insert containing 0.5% DHEA, is a prescription medicine used for this condition.)

What to Look for 

When selecting a brand of supplements, look for products that have been certified by Consumer Labs, U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), or NSF International.

This will help you ensure that what is on the label matches what is in the bottle.

Some products are marketed as sources of "natural DHEA," but these may be simple extracts from wild yams. Unless the supplement has been properly produced in a lab and the plant diosgenin converted into DHEA, it is not going to be a useful to you. Your body cannot convert the unprocessed plant substance into the hormone on its own.

Summary

Low levels of DHEA, a hormone that turns into male and female sex hormones, is associated with a wide range of conditions including depression and menopause symptoms. Supplements can be made from a plant substance, but the benefits of these supplements are not well known. 

Your doctor may recommend using oral or topical treatments containing DHEA to help with depression, vaginal thinning, or to improve the appearance of your skin.

Be aware of possible interactions with other medications and the risks of taking too much DHEA, which can cause a number of minor and serious side effects.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Will taking DHEA supplements improve my workouts?

    DHEA may increase testosterone levels, but there's little evidence it can enhance muscle strength. It's been banned by sports organizations such as the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

  • Can you increase the DHEA in your body naturally?

    There's evidence exercise may do the trick, even for older people whose DHEA levels have naturally declined. Research has found that relatively short bouts of aerobic activity—in one study, an average of 23 minutes on a treadmill—may boost blood levels of DHEA.

  • What is DHEA-S?

    DHEA-S stands for dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate. It's simply a male sex hormone that is a form of DHEA. DHEA-S is produced by the adrenal glands in both males and females. As with DHEA, levels of DHEA-S naturally decline with age.

  • What is the best time of day to take DHEA supplements?

    In the morning. This is when your body naturally produces DHEA.

  • What are the symptoms of low DHEA?

    As levels of DHEA in the blood decline, people may experience:


9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Park SG, Hwang S, Kim JS, Park KC, Kwon Y, Kim KC. The association between dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEA-S) and bone mineral density in Korean men and womenJ Bone Metab. 2017;24(1):31–36. doi:10.11005/jbm.2017.24.1.31

  3. von Mühlen D, Laughlin GA, Kritz-Silverstein D, Bergstrom J, Bettencourt R. Effect of dehydroepiandrosterone supplementation on bone mineral density, bone markers, and body composition in older adults: the DAWN trialOsteoporos Int. 2008;19(5):699–707. doi:10.1007/s00198-007-0520-z

  4. Peixoto C, Devicari Cheda JN, Nardi AE, Veras AB, Cardoso A. The effects of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) in the treatment of depression and depressive symptoms in other psychiatric and medical illnesses: A systematic review. Curr Drug Targets. 2014;15(9):901-14.

  5. Archer DF. Dehydroepiandrosterone intra vaginal administration for the management of postmenopausal vulvovaginal atrophy. J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 2015 Jan;145:139-43. doi:10.1016/j.jsbmb.2014.09.003

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  8. Heaney JL, Carroll D, Phillips AC. DHEA, DHEA-S and cortisol responses to acute exercise in older adults in relation to exercise training status and sexAge (Dordr). 2013;35(2):395-405. doi:10.1007/s11357-011-9345-y

  9. Mount Sinai. Dehydroepiandrosterone.

Additional Reading

By Cathy Wong
Cathy Wong is a nutritionist and wellness expert. Her work is regularly featured in media such as First For Women, Woman's World, and Natural Health.