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What is Dehydroepiandrosterone?

By Douglas Bonderud
Updated May 17, 2024
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Dehydroepiandrosterone is a steroid that is produced in the adrenal glands and brain of the human body. It is also known as 5-Dehydroepiandrosterone or simply DHEA. This steroid is a prohormone, which means that it is required for hormone production, but has little hormonal effect on its own. DHEA is the prohormone for both testosterone and estrogen.

This steroid is produced in small quantities in the human body until the age of seven, when production ramps up significantly. The amount of DHEA in the body reaches its peak between the ages of 20 and 30, and then begins to decline. After the age of 70, the production of dehydroepiandrosterone in the body declines by 80%.

DHEA was isolated in 1934. In the United States, it was commercially produced and sold as an over the counter weight loss supplement until the late 1980s, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classified it as a drug. This made it illegal to obtain DHEA without a prescription. In 1994, the FDA changed its ruling and once again made the steroid available to the public as a supplement. Debate sprung up around this compound again in 2009, when a bill was introduced in the United States to have it classified as an anabolic steroid.

There have been a multitude of studies conducted using this steroid, and it has been touted as a cure for everything from Alzheimer’s disease to depression, and has also been used as an athletic performance enhancer. A 2003 study found DHEA supplements to be ineffective in combating Alzheimer’s, and a 1999 study showed that this supplement had no statistically significant effect on male muscle growth or strength. Two separate studies in 1999 and 2005 found that long-term DHEA supplementation is effective in treating depression.

Dehydroepiandrosterone is present in the body in two forms. The first is as actual DHEA, and second is as the sulfate form of the compound, known as dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS). This sulfate is produced in the liver and kidneys of the human body, and any DHEA taken orally will assume this form. The amount of DHEAS in the body is typically 300 times greater than the amount of DHEA. Dehydroepiandrosterone levels typically vary, depending on the time of day, but DHEAS levels do not fluctuate.

Commercially-produced DHEA is generally made from wild yams. The yams themselves do not contain this steroid, but it can be isolated using a chemical process. Supplements are typically taken once per day in doses ranging from five to 50 milligrams (mg).

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