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Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a hormone produced primarily by your adrenal glands. Your adrenal glands sit on top of your kidneys and also produce the hormones cortisol and aldosterone.

Unlike these other hormones, your levels of DHEA decline significantly as you get older. Your levels of DHEA are highest when you’re around the age of 20 and then decline by about 10 percent per decade.

By the time you reach your 70s or 80s, your DHEA levels may only be 10 to 20 percent of what they were during their peak.

DHEA is available in oral and topical supplements. Some people think that it may help slow the aging process, but at this time, there’s not enough evidence to back these claims.

Taking DHEA may have benefits for conditions such as:

However, more high-quality clinical trials need to be performed to fully understand these benefits.

Keep reading to find out what research has found out about DHEA so far, whether you should be taking it, and what the potential risks are.

DHEA is a steroid hormone made from cholesterol. It’s primarily produced in your adrenal glands, but small amounts are also made by your gonads, fat tissue, brain, and skin. It has many roles in your body, but not all these roles are well understood.

Your body can turn DHEA into estrogen and testosterone, the primary female and male hormones respectively. It also functions as a neurosteroid to increase the excitably of neurons in your central nervous system.

It’s thought that this effect on your nervous system might improve athletic performance, but more research is needed to fully understand its role. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADE) and National Collegiate Athlete Associate (NCAA) both include DHEA on their banned substance lists.

DHEA levels peak around the time you’re 20 and may drop to less than 20 percent of their peak value over the next 40 to 60 years of your life. Low levels are linked to several conditions, such as depression and sexual dysfunction.

You can buy a synthetic form of DHEA in the form of oral tablets or topical creams. They’re sometimes marketed as an anti-aging supplements. However, DHEA’s role in aging isn’t well understood, and research hasn’t found compelling evidence that supplemental DHEA slows aging.

Some of the purported benefits of DHEA supplement include the following.

Bone density

Low levels of DHEA are linked to low bone density. But research looking at the effects of DHEA supplementation for bone health has found mixed results.

One 2019 review of studies found that DHEA supplementation may preserve bone density in older women but not in men. More research is needed to see if DHEA treatment is more favorable than estrogen therapy.

There’s no evidence that DHEA can improve bone density in young adults.

Can DHEA supplements increase testosterone levels?

Your body can transform DHEA into testosterone. Taking a DHEA may increase your testosterone levels. A 2013 study found that taking 50 milligrams (mg) of DHEA per day raised the free testosterone levels of middle-aged adults undergoing high-intensity interval training.

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Depression

There’s still a lot that’s unclear when it comes to DHEA and depression. A 2014 review of studies found some evidence that DHEA may help treat depression that’s mild or resistant to conventional therapy. However, the researchers drew their conclusions from three studies with small sample sizes.

More research is needed with more participants to draw any definitive conclusions.

Adrenal insufficiency

Your body produces most of its DHEA in your adrenal glands. Your adrenal glands also produce cortisol and aldosterone. Adrenal insufficiency is when your adrenal glands don’t produce enough of these hormones.

Taking a DHEA may help increase quality of life in people with adrenal insufficiency. Research has found that DHEA positively influences mood, subjective health status, and sexual health.

How do you know if your DHEA levels are low?

Low DHEA causes general symptoms such as prolonged fatigue, poor concentration, and a sense of diminished well-being. The best way to tell if you’re DHEA is low is to get a type of blood test called a DHEA-sulfate serum test.

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Body composition

A 2013 review of studies found that DHEA supplementation may lead to a small but significant improvement in the body composition of older men. There’s no evidence that it can lead to muscle gain or fat loss in younger adults.

Vaginal atrophy

Vaginal atrophy is a thinning of the vagina that often occurs during or after menopause due to a loss of estrogen.

A 2015 study has found that DHEA may improve symptoms of vaginal atrophy, but more research is needed to fully understand these effects.

Doses of up to 50 mg of DHEA per day are often used in research. The long-term safety hasn’t been well established.

The highest dose of DHEA used in research was 1600 mg a day for 28 days. The longest study to date that’s high quality lasted 2 years.

Some side effects linked to DHEA supplementation include:

People with liver problems shouldn’t take DHEA

DHEA is metabolized in the liver. People with known liver problems shouldn’t take DHEA. People taking hormone replacement therapy or who have a known hypersensitivity to DHEA should also avoid it.

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Medications that DHEA can interact with include:

  • antipsychotics
  • lithium
  • phenothiazines
  • carbamazepine
  • estrogen
  • selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
  • testosterone
  • triazolam
  • valproic acid

Although there’s some evidence that DHEA may benefit specific populations, most of the research at this point is mixed.

The Mayo Clinic recommends avoiding DHEA due to its potential for serious side effects and a lack of evidence to support its use.

If you’re an athlete who undergoes drug testing, you should avoid DHEA supplements since it’s a banned substance by WADA and the NCAA.

If you’re considering taking DHEA, it’s a good idea to talk to a doctor first. Taking a DHEA supplement may raise your levels of testosterone or estrogen that can have unwanted side effects.

DHEA is a hormone produced by your adrenal glands that declines as you age. It has many functions in your body, but many of these functions still aren’t well understood.

The Mayo Clinic and many other sources advise against taking DHEA supplements since there’s little evidence that they’re effective for most people, and they have the potential to cause unwanted side effects.