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What is DHEA? Why do we need it?

DHEA is an abbreviation for dehydroepiandrosterone, a hormone that is secreted by the adrenal glands and converted into other hormones as needed. It is the most abundant androgen in the body; on average, the adrenals produce between 15 and 30 milligrams of DHEA per day.

Only a small percentage of the body's supply of DHEA is in the active form; the rest circulates in the bloodstream as DHEA sulfate (DHEA-S) and serves as a reserve that can be converted to the active form of DHEA when necessary.

DHEA has been associated with positive effects in a number of conditions, ranging from heart disease and obesity to osteoporosis. Other studies have shown that DHEA can ameliorate some of the symptoms of systemic lupus erythematosus, an autoimmune disease, and may play some role in protecting against depression. DHEA is also thought to help build muscle mass, reduce fat and speed up recovery time following injury, which has made it increasingly popular with athletes.

How much DHEA should I take?

Dosages of DHEA for men and women differ: men seem to be able to tolerate higher doses. Men have been shown to tolerate doses up to 50 milligrams per day, while in women, the maximum recommended dose is 25 milligrams per day. However, because the long-term effects of DHEA have not been studied thoroughly, its safety and efficacy has yet to be determined.

What forms of DHEA are available?

DHEA is available in either natural or synthetic forms, and is available in capsules, drops, or a type of chewing gum. Most DHEA is derived from sterols extracted from wild yams and is often marketed as "natural" DHEA. However, it is recommended that only pharmaceutical-grade supplements be used.

What can happen if I take too much DHEA? Are there any interactions I should be aware of? What precautions should I take?

Because is a precursor of hormones such as estrogen and testosterone, patients with hormone-sensitive cancers (such as those of the breast, prostate, ovaries and testes) should avoid DHEA supplements. In addition, it should not be taken by people under 40 unless a person's DHEA levels are low. Because DHEA has a steroid-like effect on the human body, its use has been banned by the International Olympic Committee, the National Football League, and other athletic organizations.

As of this writing, there are no known drug interactions with DHEA, but it may interact negatively with alcohol. As always, make sure to consult with a licensed health care provider before taking DHEA or any other dietary supplement or herbal remedy.


  • Balch JF, Balch PA. Prescription for Nutritional Healing, 2nd edition. Garden City Park, NY: Avery Publishing, 1997, pp. 544-555.
  • Bernstein L, Ross RK, Pike MC, et al. Hormone levels in older women: a study of post-menopausal breast cancer patients and healthy population controls. Br J Cancer 1990;61:298-302.
  • Morales AJ, Nolan JJ, Nelson JC, et al. Effects of replacement dose of DHEA in men and women of advancing age. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 1994;78:1360.
  • Thompson G. Doctors warn of dangers of muscle-building drugs. New York Times March 2, 1999.
  • Vogiatzi MG, Boeck MA, Vlachopapadopoulou E, et al. Dehydroepiandrosterone in morbidly obese adolescents: effects on weight, body composition, lipids, and insulin resistance. Metabolism 1996;45:1101-15.
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