Is DHEA the Wonder Hormone?


Dehydropeiandrosterone, or DHEA, is being touted as an anti-aging hormone, effective in preventing and reversing many of the debilitating changes in emotional and physical well-being we associate with aging and chronic disease. Most Americans are aware of the contributions of medicine in managing acute emergencies, but also their inability to offer treatment to the vast majority of people whose lives are limited by chronic disease.

What is interesting about DHEA is that the data collected thus far shows that low levels correlate with many aspects of the decline with aging – from vigorous good health into what we think of as old age. What is even more interesting is that low-dose, physiologic supplementation of DHEA appears to enhance one’s health and sense of well-being. Used as a medicine in higher doses, it appears to ameliorate many serious disease processes.

The Chemistry of DHEA

Until recently, scientists believed that DHEA only formed the pool from which other active hormones could be synthesized. It is clear that the chemical structure of DHEA is similar to that of testosterone. Both are derivatives of the cholesterol molecule. With the difference of one carbon-chain section of the molecule, cholesterol is strikingly similar to both DHEA and testosterone. Since it is similar to other steroid hormones (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone), it can convert of stimulate production of estrogens, testosterone, or cortisone, and many other steroid hormones when the body needs them.

Recent research indicates that, although DHEA is similar to other androgens, there are specific receptors on the cell surface that indicate a likelihood of individual function.

Potential Health Benefits of DHEA

The most important aspect of DHEA and health is that it has a barrage of claims for improving health in general, and reducing the effects of many chronic diseases. This may be the most powerful attribute to this over-the-counter hormone. To date, the following research has been performed with DHEA:

1. HEART DISEASE – Men with heart disease have lower naturally occuring levels of DHEA-sulphate than healthy men. They are three times more likely to die of heart disease. DHEA also lowers serum LDL cholesterol. The use of ingested DHEA may raise internal levels of the hormone and reduce the risk of aquiring heart disease. Research by Barret-Conner and colleagues confirms the risk reduction with the use of DHEA. It will be interesting to see if it is more-often prescribed (or taken supplimentally) in persons with one or more heart disease risk factors.

2. OBESITY – Obese mice do not become diseased if their diets are supplemented with DHEA. More research needs to be performed in persons with moderate and morbid (over 350 lbs.) obesity to see the benefits of taking DHEA would have, such as the reduction of peripheral vascular disease, diabetes, or hypertension.

3. CANCER – Mice bred for cancer do not develop cancer when their diets are supplemented. Also – there is an association with low levels of DHEA and breast cancer. If this concept can be applied to people, it would be one of the most significant attributes of taking DHEA. Mice bred for cancer have a much higer incidence rate for development of tumors than their non-experimental counterparts. If DHEA does completely reverse neoplastic development, it must be looked upon favorably. Remember that naturally occuring DHEA levels decrease with age, and all forms of cancer increase, so the relationship between low levels and tumor development is a sound one. We must also remember that much of the research in cardiovascular health in animals may not be directly applicable to humans. This research must be studied in humans with a strong family history of cancer development (in a primary prevention trial), or those who have had tumors removed, and followed for over a 5 year period to see what the remission status will be. None the less, it is a promising area of health improvement possibility.

4. AUTOIMMUNE RESPONSE – patients with lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, MS, and colitis have very low DHEA levels. When supplemented, they had increased stamina and improved sense of well-being. Lupus patients had significant improvement in their kidney disease. Because of the prevalence of autoimmune diseases (such as CFIDS, insulin dependent diabetes, etc.), the use of DHEA may again have tremendous possibilities in an area of research that has grown in stature over the past decade. DHEA may be part of the immuno-enhancing elements that are currently being tried to enhance the immune systems of many people.

5. OSTEOPOROSIS – DHEA can theoretically work like estrogen, androgen, and progesterone in preventing bone loss and stimulating bone formation. DHEA should be used in conjunction with a progressive resistance exercise program, as any supplement should.

DHEA and Athletic Performance

In sports the conversion of DHEA to testosterone is of great importance to athletes. If we can increase the body’s production of testosterone then we can not avoid an increase in strength, muscle mass, and reductions in body fat. The fact that DHEA may be considered an ergogenic aid (a substance that artificially boosts performance) will ultimately be engaged in debate. However, because DHEA is a “natural” hormone, it may not be banned as an illegal substance until a multitude of tests show it is both unsafe and provides too much enhancement of performance. Until those tests are made public and ratified as proven by a sports governing body, then DHEA usage may increase as an anabolic substance in the near future.


DHEA shows great promise both clinically and supplementally. The next few years will detail information as to whether we should be taking DHEA as an ergogenic aid, or as a basic component of our daily diet.

According to Steven Cherniske, MS – author of the new book entitiled: The DHEA Breakthrough, this hormone may have effects on different body systems and tissues depending on the dosage. Below is a table of the possible changes in body physiology based on different level doses of DHEA:

Dosage Physiology/effect Body area

0.1-0.3 (mm) Decrease platelet aggregation- decrease vessel clotting Blood samples
50 mg Increase in number of B and T cells in the immune system Blood samples
50 mg Inhibits enzyme called glucose-6 -phosphate dehydrogenase Blood samples(in animals)
100 mg 90% increase in insulin growth factor -1, which enhances anabolic effects Blood samples in men over 50
10-25 mg Recommended medical doses for DHEA over 40 years of age Ingested amounts

The next few years will decide the true benefits of taking DHEA as a supplement. However, in most medical conditions, and in general health, it seems as DHEA does have tremendous benefits for maintaining optimum health, especially for those over 40 years of age, or whose levels have started to decline.


1. Barnett, ER. (pub). Physician’s Desk Reference for non-prescription drugs. Medical Economics Co. 1990.

2. Cherniske, S. The DHEA Breakthrough. Balentine Books, New York, 1996.

2. Stempfer, MJ, Colditz, GA, Willett, WC, Manson, JE, et al. Postmenopausal estrogen therapy and cardiovascular disease. New England Journal of Medicine. 325:756-62, 1991.

3. Barrett-Conner, E., Khaw, K-T, Yen, SSC. A prospective study of dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate, mortality, and cardiovascular disease. New England Journal of Medicine. 315:1519-24, 1986.

4. Ebeling, P, Koivisto, VA. The physiological importance of dehyroepiandrosterone. Lancet. 343:1479-81, 1994.

5. Herbert, J. The age of dehyroepiandrosterone. Lancet. 345:1193-94, 1995.

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Written by Eric P. Durak MSc

Explore Wellness in 2021