Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is one of the most plentiful steroid hormones in the body. It has a range of important effects on our health.  DHEA is produced primarily by our adrenal glands, with smaller quantities also being produced by our ovaries, testes and brains.

In common with other hormones, DHEA levels decline as we age. Once most of us reach the age of 75, DHEA levels have dropped to about 15 per cent of those we enjoyed at twenty-five.

Why do we need healthy levels of DHEA?

DHEA is an important buffer for our sex hormones. DHEA is a weak androgen that can be converted into the male hormone, testosterone, with which it shares some of its benefits as well as its side effects. In women, DHEA supplements can increase testosterone levels and help restore a flagging libido. DHEA can also be metabolized into the female hormone, oestrogen.

Other beneficial actions of DHEA include boosting our immune system, increasing the function of growth hormone and balancing the effects of the stress hormone, cortisol, on our bodies. Taking DHEA supplements can also reduce levels of ‘bad’ (LDL) cholesterol, AGEs, and oxidative stress and to improve low mood and cognitive functions, including memory.

Studies have also suggested that declining levels of DHEA in our body are associated with an increased risk of heart disease. Those with the highest levels of DHEA tend to have the lowest risk of heart disease and the longest life spans. In fact, many anti-aging researchers believe that replenishing our DHEA stocks so as to maintain them at youthful levels is highly desirable for optimal health and wellbeing.

How do I test my DHEA levels?

For any of us who think we might have low DHEA levels, a simple blood test is available that measures Dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate (DHEAS), a more stable circulating form of DHEA. Some doctors also use salivary testing, but these can be expensive and the results are laboratory-dependent and often require additional verification via blood tests.

Urine testing of our total 17-ketosteroids can also give an indication of our levels of DHEA release over a 24-hour period.

How do I boost my DHEA levels?

In those with low levels, DHEA supplementation can significantly improve quality of life. Usually, the first things to improve are fatigue, libido and general wellbeing.

DHEA is available on prescription in capsule form from compounding pharmacies. This means an appropriate dosage can be individually formulated based on our levels and symptoms. This is important, as there is much variability in our responses to DHEA (such that anything between 10mg and 100mg might be needed daily) and any dose needs to be adjusted individually to improve our symptoms, without causing adverse reactions.  DHEA supplements should never be taken without ongoing biochemical/clinical assessment and individualized dosing (hence, DHEA tablets should not be ordered over the internet or bought on an overseas trip).

Last Reviewed 02/Mar/2014

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Dr Merlin Thomas

Professor Merlin Thomas is Professor of Medicine at Melbourne’s Monash University, based in the Department of Diabetes. He is both a physician and a scientist. Merlin has a broader interest in all aspects of preventive medicine and ageing. He has published over 270 articles in many of the worlds’ leading medical journals