DHEA is a weak male hormone produced in both men and women. It is released by the adrenal glands. The DHEA-producing adrenal glands are small, triangular shaped glands located above the kidneys.
The outer layer of the glands makes hormones that have a number of functions, including:
- balancing levels of water and salt in the body
- keeping blood pressure levels normal
- helping the body use fat, protein, and carbohydrates
- developing feminine and masculine characteristics
The inner layer of the glands make hormones that help your body cope with stress.
After the age of 30, DHEA levels begin to decline naturally. DHEA levels may be low in people suffering from certain conditions such as:
Certain medications such as insulin, opiates, corticosteroids, and danazol may also cause DHEA depletion. Tumors and adrenal gland disorders can cause abnormally high levels of DHEA, leading to early sexual maturity.
Your doctor may recommend a DHEA-sulfate serum test to make sure that your adrenal glands are working properly and that you have a normal amount of DHEA in your body.
This test is commonly performed on women who have excessive hair growth or the appearance of male body characteristics. A DHEA-sulfate serum test may also be done on children who are maturing at an abnormally early age. These are symptoms of a gland disorder called congenital adrenal hyperplasia, which causes increased levels of DHEA and the male sex hormone androgen.
You don’t need to make any special preparations for this test. However, let your doctor know if you are taking any supplements or vitamins that contain DHEA or DHEA-sulfate, as they may affect the reliability of the test.
Your doctor will administer a blood test in his or her office. He or she will swab the injection site with an antiseptic. Then he or she will wrap an elastic band around the top of your arm to cause the vein to swell with blood. A fine needle is then inserted into the vein to collect a blood sample in an attached tube. The band is removed as the vial fills with blood. When the doctor has collected enough, the needle is removed from your arm and gauze is applied to the site to prevent any further bleeding.
In the case of a young child whose veins are smaller, the doctor will use a sharp instrument called a lancet to puncture the skin. The blood is then collected into a small tube or onto a test strip. A bandage will be placed on the site to prevent further bleeding.
The blood sample will then be sent to a lab for analysis.
As with any blood test, there are minimal risks of bruising, bleeding, or infection at the puncture site. In rare cases, the vein may become swollen after blood is drawn. This condition, known as phlebitis, can be treated with a warm compress several times a day.
Excessive bleeding could be a problem if you suffer from a bleeding disorder or are taking blood-thinning medication, such as warfarin (Coumadin) or aspirin.
Normal results will vary depending on your sex and age. An abnormally high level of DHEA in the blood may be the result of a number of conditions, including:
- adrenal carcinoma (a rare disorder that results in the growth of malignant cancer cells in the adrenal gland’s outer layer)
- congenital adrenal hyperplasia (a series of inherited adrenal gland disorders causing boys to enter puberty two to three years early. In girls, it can cause abnormal hair growth, irregular menstrual periods, and genitals that appear to look both male and female)
- polycystic ovary syndrome (an imbalance of female sex hormones)
- adrenal gland tumor (the growth of a benign or cancerous tumor on the adrenal gland)
If your test shows that you have abnormal levels of DHEA, your doctor will administer a series of additional tests to determine the cause. In the case of an adrenal tumor, you may need surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy. In cases of congenital adrenal hyperplasia or polycystic ovary syndrome, you may require hormone therapy to stabilize your level of DHEA.