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DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is a steroid hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands. Among other things, DHEA is the precursor of as many as 50 other hormones made by the body. The body’s supply of DHEA varies throughout adult life, peaking at around 25 and decreasing gradually until around age 70. The amount of DHEA in the body is thought to directly affect the amount of usable estrogen and testosterone.


DHEA has been used in treating a wide variety of illnesses and adverse conditions. Most recently, research has focused on its anti-aging effects. Much of the recent research suggests that by maintaining higher levels of DHEA as we age, we can divert or postpone many of the effects of aging. Current research being conducted and underwritten by the National Cancer Institute, the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute on Aging, and the American Cancer Society is investigating DHEA as a potential treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, Epstein-Barr virus, herpes, lupus and other autoimmune diseases, menopausal symptoms, osteoporosis, and even AIDS.


What DHEA Does:

DHEA is the most abundant hormone in the human body. It serves as a precursor to all the other important adrenal hormones. In other words, it is one of the main building blocks of testosterone, progesterone, estrogen and cortisol. It is synthesized by the body from cholesterol, and is at its peak in the body between the ages of 20 and 25. By the time an adult reaches age 70, their body produces approximately 70% less DHEA than it did at age 20.


The role of DHEA is only vaguely understood, and a great deal of research has been undertaken and is underway to attempt to understand it more clearly. The preliminary findings suggest that maintaining DHEA levels at close to peak might reduce the incidence of many age related diseases and conditions. Because DHEA is such a basic building block, its reduction opens the door to a multitude of illnesses and conditions in virtually every system in the body. In fact, research conducted on animals has shown that subjects given DHEA supplements live up to 50% longer than those in a control group.


That research has not yet been duplicated using human subjects, but other studies have shown suggestive results. For instance, in a study that tracked 242 men between the ages of 50 and 79, Dr. Elizabeth Barrett-Connor at the University of California, San Diego found a correlation between levels of DHEA and death from age-related diseases. In her study, the men who survived had notably higher levels of DHEA in their blood throughout the study period.


Health Benefits of DHEA:

Among the conditions that DHEA has been used to treat or is being studied as a treatment for are:


  • Combats fatigue and mood changes associated with age

A 1994 study published in the Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism showed that those taking DHEA supplements in a controlled study reported more energy, better sleep and higher ability to handle stress than those taking a placebo.


  • Improves the immune system functioning

A study conducted at the University of California, San Diego by Dr. Samuel Yen showed marked improvement in many immune system parameters in men who were given a DHEA supplement for at least 20 weeks.


  • Combats atherosclerosis and other heart problems

There are a number of studies that suggest DHEA’s role in maintaining heart health aside from the research conducted by Dr. Barrett-Conner. In study after study, higher levels of DHEA were linked with decreased risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). In fact, DHEA levels have been shown to be a more accurate predictor of heart attack risk than cholesterol.


  • Cancer Prevention

Again, preliminary results suggest that DHEA may help prevent cancer. Studies of women with breast cancer show lower than normal levels of DHEA in their bodies, though it’s still uncertain whether that’s a cause or a result. Because of DHEA’s antioxidant properties, though, there’s good reason to believe that DHEA may have positive effects on cancer prevention.


  • Reduce the effects of osteoporosis

In one Japanese study, researchers found a correlation between levels of DHEA in women over 50 and bone density. This, in and of itself, could be coincidental, but there are also animal studies that show increased mineralization in animals with osteoporosis when they are given DHEA supplements. Human studies are underway to study the effect in humans.


  • Improves symptoms of depression and may treat Alzheimer’s disease)

Because of DHEA’s antioxidant and immune system enhancing properties, scientists are study its effects on Alzheimer’s disease and other brain disorders. They’ve discovered that DHEA supplementation can improve symptoms of amnesia, among other things.


The link between DHEA and depression is one of the most clearly established. There are a number of studies that note improved mood and functioning in depressed older adults when they take DHEA supplements.


  • Relieves symptoms of Lupus

Researchers at Stanford University gave DHEA to 57 women in varying stages of Lupus erythomatosus.  Two thirds of the women reported improvement of symptoms including joint pain, headaches, rashes and fatigue. The FDA is supporting clinical trials to evaluate DHEA as an alternative to traditional treatment for lupus.


Possible Side Effects of DHEA

In large doses, DHEA has occasionally been reported to cause acne, excessive hair growth, irritability and aggressiveness, insomnia, fatigue and low energy. Far more rarely, DHEA may cause headaches, nervousness, deepening of the voice and menstrual irregularities. If you experience any of these side effects, consult a doctor to have the dosage adjusted.



The jury is still out on DHEA but a mounting volume of evidence points to the fact that supplementation with DHEA can provide substantial protection against many age-related diseases. Because of the number of studies that have proven its beneficial effects, and because the side effects of DHEA when taken properly are so few, the medical community is looking to the hormone as a possible treatment for disorders in every system in the body.


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