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Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)

June 19, 2019

The human adrenal glands produce large quantities of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and its sulphate (DHEAS), but production also takes place in the brain and the sexual glands. It is estimated that DHEA forms 30–50% of the total quantity of male androgens and up to 75% of the total quantity of pre-menopausal female androgens. DHEA is a steroid hormone, which is the most plentiful one of those occurring in the body. Its levels decrease with age, however, and hence this phenomenon is referred to as “andrenopause”. DHEA levels are highly specific to the individual and they are greatly affected, for example, by the genotype. DHEA and DHEAS are precursors to testosterone and estradiol. In adult men, 30–50% of the total quantity of androgens is led by DHEA/DHEAS. Although DHEA/DHEAS is a rather weak androgen, it can peripherally turn into androstenone, testosterone, and dihydrotestosterone (DHT) [1, 2, 3, 4].


DHEA doping is often related to its testosterone boosting effect and it is classified as an anabolic substance. In practice, the testosterone increasing and performance capacity enhancing effect is quite low, however. The research on the potency of DHEA is partly conflicting. DHEA potency cannot be entirely denied, but even middle-aged athletes can hardly gain any great ergogenic aid from it [5].

DHEA is often used successfully for the management of female menopause. In addition, epidemiological studies have linked low DHEA values, for instance, to ischaemic heart disease, atherosclerosis, osteoporosis, and sexual dysfunctions [1, 4]. DHEA is also a neuroactive hormone and together with other hormones and neurotransmitters it affects moods, emotions, and behaviour. DHEA has been used, for instance, in the treatment of depression and it can have some effects on immunity and progressive brain diseases [4].

DHEA as a dietary supplement

DHEA levels often begin to fall after the age of 30 or so at a rate of approximately 25% per decade [3]. Due to this, DHEA dietary supplements have begun to be called the “youth hormone”, the “fountain of youth” and the “anti-ageing hormone”, for marketing purposes. It is good to bear in mind that contrary to what it is, for example, in the United States, DHEA is not a dietary supplement in Finland. In the United States, the dietary supplement status of DHEA is a continuing cause of contention even though the issue has been researched for decades already. The lacks of clearly demonstrated DHEA health benefits, as well as the potential adverse effects of DHEA, are the greatest reasons for this [6]. Under the Finnish Criminal Code, DHEA is classified as a doping substance belonging to the class of synthetic anabolic steroids and their derivatives [7]. DHEA is available in Finland only as an extemporaneous preparation; in other words, it is a self-medication or prescription drug product prepared at the pharmacy by order. Some of the indications include mood or memory improvement for the elderly. The dosage follows the doctor’s prescription [8].

Adverse effects

Some of the adverse effects related to DHEA include acne, fetal virilization, as well as potential hormone dependent cancers like breast cancer [6]. Presumably, DHEA is quite safe as long as the daily doses remain moderate (<75 mg/24 hrs). The safety of long-term use is not sufficiently known yet, however [9, 10].

Joni Askola
Master of Health Sciences (Sports Medicine)


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[2] Legrain S, Girard L. Pharmacology and therapeutic effects of dehydroepiandrosterone in older subjects. Drugs Aging. 2003;20(13):949–67

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[6] Klinge CM, Clark BJ, Prough RA. Dehydroepiandrosterone research: past, current, and future. Vitam Horm. 2018; 108:1–28

[7] Rikoslaki. 400/2002. 44 luvun 16 §:n 1 momentissa tarkoitetut dopingaineet. Ajantasainen lainsäädäntö. Valtion säädöstietopankki[8] Duodecim lääketietokanta. 2016. Dehydroepiandrosteroni (DHEA) 25 mg tabletti. Terveysportti.

[9] Evans J, Malouf R, Huppert F, Niekerk J. Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) supplementation for cognitive function in healthy elderly people. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2006;(4):CD006221

[10] Lin L, Tsui K, Wang P. Clinical application of dehydroepiandrosterone in reproduction: a review of the evidence. J Chin Med Assoc. 2015;78(8):446–53