DHEA Benefits And Risks – What Is DHEA And Does It Slow Aging?

One key hallmark of aging is a steady decline in the production of various hormones within the body.This can have a devastating effect on your health and result in accelerated aging! 

This decline in hormone production use to be viewed as an effect of aging, it is now known that the decline in hormones plays an important role in how fast we age because hormones direct repair, recovery and rejuvenation.

One such hormone is called DHEA and between the ages of 20-70, ​your DHEA levels will ​drop faster and more aggressively than most other hormones in your endocrine system. This shift alone can have a significant impact on your health and aging. 

In this article you'll learn:

  1. What DHEA is and why it is so important for your overall health and wellbeing
  2. The Ant-Aging benefits of DHEA 
  3. How DHEA impacts memory, focus and brain function
  4. How to know if you are deficient
  5. How to supplement with DHEA for the greatest benefit and the lowest risk
  6. What risks and worries there are with DHEA
  7. How men and women benefit from DHEA supplementation

Let's get into it!

What Is DHEA

Dehydroepiandosterone (DHEA) is the most abundant steroid hormone in the body. Most of the DHEA is manufactured from the adrenal glands, although other cells in the body, such as the fat cells, can produce smaller amounts.

In the body, DHEA will be converted into other sex hormones, such as testosterone and estrogen​...this conversion is why many bodybuilders turn to DHEA as a way to manufacture more testosterone...that being said, it’s important to note that DHEA can be converted into over 150 known metabolites.

These metabolites will impact many different functions beyond the production of testosterone and estrogen. Truthfully, we likely have no idea how deep these benefits go because DHEA is taken into so many different cells! 

DHEA has it’s own receptors on many different cells, which speaks to the importance of DHEA beyond just the sex hormone building block. These receptors can even be found on brain cells and in the eyes.

Anti-Aging Benefits Of DHEA

Deficiencies in DHEA have been linked to many diseases associated with aging including: heart disease, high-cholesterol, Alzheimers, diabetes, mental illness and osteoporosis.

There are tissue specific benefits that will impact certain areas of the body like the brain or bones, however, there are also global effects that can positively impact the whole body...

One such global mechanism by which DHEA can slow aging and even reverse the ravages of aging is by controlling "inflam-aging"...

Inflam-Aging - The Great Accelerant Of Disease

Low DHEA levels have also been associated with higher inflammation levels, which has been tightly linked to accelerated aging…something we in the anti-aging world call “inflam-aging”

This means that if you are genetically prone to develop arthritis, then inflammation will accelerate the onset of arthritis... 

If your "genetic weakness" exists in the cardiovascular system, then you may develop heart disease sooner in life than you would if your body was not so inflammed.

Research has clearly demonstrated a powerful anti-inflammatory effect when we maintain more youthful levels of DHEA through supplementation! This means less pain and stiffness in the joints, less cardiovascular disease, and less brain degeneration...

DHEA Improves Memory & Cognitive Function

As mentioned earlier, DHEA receptors can be found on the cells of many tissues, including the brain. In fact, a lot of research has demonstrated that DHEA supplementation can have dramatic effects on mood, memory and cognition.

According to published data, if you have higher DHEA blood levels, you will have a tendency to have better working memory, verbal fluency, overall attention and mental focus.

In one study on post-menopausal women with cognitive impairment, researchers found that just 25 mg of DHEA resulted in significant improvements in cognitive and verbal scores​,  helping the women in the study to maintain skills needed for independant living. (Strangl et al, 2011)

Another study in a similar group of post-menopausal women found that 50 mg of DHEA daily resulted in improvements in various cognition skills, especially those skills related to perception and judgement. (Hershman et al)

Further research using an MRI machine found that DHEA supplementation calmed the amygdala and enhanced connection between the amygdala and the memory center of the brain (the hippocampus), when we see this type of connection, ​it means improvements in rational thinking.

How does DHEA work in the brain?

DHEA appears to enhance the ability of brain cells to build connections, which may explain at least one reason why it’s so effective for enhancing and protecting brain function. 

Other potential reasons for improved brain function may have to do with other known benefits of enhancing insulin sensitivity, decreasing inflammation, and increased blood flow to the brain.

DHEA Improves Mood

One area of study that is exploding around DHEA is the benefits to mood, especially in depression.

One such study looked at the effect of DHEA on “mid-life blues”, a mild form of depression that has a tendency to effect people in their 40s and 50s.

In this study, 60% of DHEA supplement​ers enjoyed a greater than 50% improvement in their symptoms​ compared to just 20% of the placebo group. (Bloch et al, 1999)

In another study in middle aged to elderly patients, DHEA supplementation resulted in significant improvements in major depression symptoms, with higher blood DHEA levels resulting in better results. (Wolkowitz et al, 1997).

This improvement in mood has been something that I have seen in clients at The Expert Nutrition Center who have started supplementing with DHEA. This mood boost can be dramatic with patients reporting a restoration of  motivation and vitality!

How Do I Know If I’m Deficient?

DHEA levels begin to drop at around age 35 and by age 70 you may have just 20% of the optimal levels which ​you would have enjoyed in your youth!

Women also have a tendency towards lower DHEA levels than men as they age, which can result in more exaggerated symptoms of deficiency. We’ll talk more about the differences and benefits of DHEA in men and women later in the article.

Because DHEA is manufactured from pregnenolone (the mother building block of many hormones), which is manufactured from cholesterol, it is also possible that certain drugs, such as cholesterol-lowering drugs, will interfere with your production and thus further lower DHEA levels beyond what we see in normal aging.

The best way to assess DHEA is through blood testing.

Regardless of what the lab reports considers normal, however, we recommend aiming for the optimal range seen in the 21 year old version of yourself. These levels are generally as follows:

  • Men - 350-490 micrograms per deciliter
  • Women - 275-400 micrograms per deciliter

Remember, the goal of supplementation is to lift your DHEA levels to what we could expect at the peak of health in our twenties, not to what is considered "​average" for your age.

Benefits Of DHEA In Men

In men, insufficient levels of DHEA can have a dramatic effect on mood, energy levels, physical strength, sexual arousal and sexual performance.

​Both libido and erectile dysfunction can benefit from DHEA supplementation.

DHEA is the precursor to testosterone and thus can raise testosterone levels in aging men. Even more important, DHEA may increase the amount of free-testosterone, which correlates more closely to benefits because free-testosterone can be used by the cells, while bound testosterone is prevented from entering the cell.

This means that even if testosterone levels remain unchanged with DHEA supplementation, free-testosterone may go up, which can result in benefits despite TOTAL testosterone remaining unchanged.

Benefits Of DHEA In Women

As mentioned, DHEA deficiencies are usually more pronounced in women than in men and this can lead to issues with bone loss, decreased muscle strength, lower energy levels, mood imbalances, poor libido, and increased risk of heart disease.

One study in post-menopausal women over the age of 60 found that bone mineral density increased with long-term supplementation with DHEA.

Another study found that women who supplemented with 30-50 mg of DHEA daily enjoyed improved energy levels, mood, and feelings of well-being!

Yet another study found that women in their 70s enjoyed improvements in sexual desire, arousal, and enjoyment with DHEA supplementation. ​

How ​Much DHEA Should I Take Daily

The goal of DHEA supplementation is to restore levels of DHEA to a youthful ​range.

By restoring DHEA blood levels to the range that we see around the age of 21, we may be able to recover some of the health lost throughout the years.

There is no doubt that hormones, including DHEA, play an important role with improving recovery and repair of cells and tissues within the body.

The question is how to supplement with DHEA so that benefits far outweigh any risks associated with DHEA supplementation, which we'll cover later in the article.

DHEA supplementation should ​be implemented carefully. ​It's a good idea to be monitored by a physician to assure that your blood tests fall within the optimal range.

Although most people over the age of 40 can safely supplement with 25 mg of DHEA daily, you may require more or less depending on how your body responds to the supplement.

Studies in elderly men and women have found that up to 75 mg of DHEA in men and 50 mg in women could be used for extended periods of time without harm (N Engl J Med 2006; 355:1647-1659) In fact, these doses restored levels to the upper-normal range found in youth.

For men, I prefer a formula called Andro-XY by BioSpec, which provides a mix of herbs to enhance production and activation of testosterone while simultaneously delivering 30-40 mg of DHEA in a daily dose of 3-4 capsules respectively.

How Much DHEA Should A Woman Take?

For women, a pure micronized DHEA supplement may be best. I recommend Pure Encapsulations Micronized DHEA 25 mg as this formula is pharmaceutical grade, free from common allergens, and heavily tested to assure quality and potency.

​Some women who take DHEA have reported and increase in facial hair when they took too much DHEA. This is obviously a factor that women must ​consider and men do not have to worry about. For most women, 25 mg can be used safely, however, I have seen patients who start to see some unwanted hair growth at this dose. Once the dose is decreased the facial hair growth stops and begins to reverse. To avoid this issue, simply start at a lower dose, 10 mg and work up over weeks to months.

7-Keto DHEA - The DHEA For Those Who Can’t Take DHEA

7-Keto DHEA is a metabolite of DHEA and cannot be converted into sex hormones such as testosterone and estrogen.

This makes it a good alternative to those who cannot take or tolerate standard DHEA, such as anyone being treated for breast or prostate cancer.

Research suggests that 7-Keto DHEA appears to have weight loss properties due to its influence on heat production in the body and on fat-burning enzymes within the liver.

In one study, 30 overweight subjects supplemented with 100 mg of 7-keto DHEA twice daily and enjoyed three times more fat loss compared to the placebo group.

Other research has found benefits to the cholesterol. and immune system with 7-keto DHEA.

These benefits make it a good alternative for those who cannot supplement with standard DHEA, or those who worry about increasing testosterone and estrogen levels.

Side Effects & Risks

DHEA is the precursor to the core sex hormones, estrogen and testosterone, which begs the question…”what about breast or prostate cancer?”

Admittedly there are many unanswered questions about the safety of longterm DHEA supplementation. When you troll the internet, you do find cases where people seemingly could not tolerate the supplement with people occasionally reporting heart palpitations, facial hair growth in women, changes to the menstrual cycle, breast tenderness, etc.

These side effects appear to be rare, and many can be attributed to other things not related to the DHEA. 

That being said, everyone reacts differently to supplements and hormones, so if you think a side effect is related to the DHEA it's best to stop and follow up with a doctor who can test your DHEA and other hormones before commencing with supplementation.

Cancer is the biggest worry with DHEA because it can lead to higher testosterone and estrogen levels. It's a real worry, however, contrary to popular belief, some animal and test-tube research, for example, suggests that DHEA has anticancer effects in breast tissue, skin, colon and liver.

​To date, there is no data that suggests that there is any increased cancer risk with DHEA supplementation...For now, however, until more research is available anyone with a history of breast or prostate cancer should probably avoid DHEA supplementation unless they’re being closely followed by a physician who has experience with bio-identical hormone replacement therapy.

Theoretically, DHEA could be problematic in men with prostate enlargement as it can increase the production of testosterone, which may increase the rate at which the prostate grows.​ That being said, encouraging data from a 2 year study on elderly men taking 75 mg of DHEA daily showed no increase in prostate size or PSA level. So, DHEA may prove to be safe for the prostate, however, more data is needed to confirm these findings. (N Engl J Med 2006; 355:1647-1659)

If you are over the age of 50 and want to supplement with DHEA, consider simultaneously supplementing with a formula like Ultra Natural Prostate by Life Extension to add an extra layer of protection. You should also have your doctor test your estrogen, testosterone, DHT, and PSA levels.

Although most women do not have problems with DHEA supplementation, on occassion, women may notice facial hair growth or breast tenderness. If this occurs, lower the dose or discontinue until you have have a doctor test your hormones. 

In otherwise healthy men and women, DHEA has proven benefits, however, it is advisable to have DHEA-S, estrogen, testosterone, dihydrotestosterone (DHT) and PSA (in men) tested regularly to make sure that all levels are in the healthy range regardless of whether or not you have issues.

​Some researchers believe that DHEA may have a high level of safety because it appears to have little effect on serum hormone levels. Instead, it appears that DHEA is likely transported into certain tissues of the body and converted locally, thus limiting the effects to the tissues that need it most.

​​For now, we'll keep an eye on the research and alert you to any new research that may shed more light on the safety of DHEA. Sign up to receive these updates at the bottom of this post.

The Secret Ingredient

Not all research has been positive for DHEA, some published data has found no significant benefit in certain populations. I believe these studies fail to prove benefit for a number of different reasons, for example...

Some research used ​low doses of DHEA. In at least one study, doses of 30 mg or less failed to significantly increase the blo​od DHEA-S levels. This may indicate that ​studies using lower doses simply may not be sufficient to produce ​therapeutic benefit. 

Many of the studies showed a trend towards benefit but because they were small studies simply didn't have enough subjects to make those results statistically significant. 

Although dose is important to whether or not you will benefit, there's one factor that I believe stands above all else...I call it the secret ingredient...

DHEA, for the most part, is a building block. Much like a pile of wood on the floor​ won't spontaneously turn into a house, DHEA won't spontaneously turn into testosterone, estrogen, and any other of the 150 known metabolites without some sort of stimulus.

That stimulus is heavy or intense exercise.

Exercise triggers the use of building blocks, including DHEA conversion... 

Most of the research simply restored DHEA levels in sedentary and otherwise unhealthy seniors without sending messages to the body to build and grow stronger. The body is not wasteful, it will not rebuild without a need for repair and restoration.

Exercise is the work-order...

Intense exercise or resistance training tells the body to build strength and vitality to handle the demands being placed upon it. So, get in the gym, lift some weights, and send signals to the body that you need strength, energy and vitality...that can mean the difference between mild benefit and dramatic change! 

DHEA Benefits Overview

DHEA is one of the most abundant hormones in the body. Sadly, it declines aggressively with age. This decline may lead to a dramatic decline in repair and rejuvenation of the body as well as tissue-specific effects such as Alzheimer's, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, autoimmune diseases, and osteoporosis. In addition, low DHEA usually makes you feel the middle-age blues, which often reverses once you drive your DHEA levels up to more youthful levels. 

DHEA is not without risk. The risk is shrouded in the unknowns due to relatively short studies on relatively small numbers of people. The longest study to date, published in the New England Journal Of Medicine suggested trends towards benefit and few side effects with no risk to prostate enlargement or PSA elevations. 

Most anti-aging experts believe that DHEA supplementation may play a significant role in slowing or possibly even reversing some of the ravages of aging. 

References For DHEA Benefits And Risks:

Morley JE, Kaiser F, et al. Potentially predictive and manipulable blood serum correlates of aging in the healthy human male: progressive decreases in bioavailable testosterone, dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate, and the ratio of insulin-like growth factor 1 to growth hormone. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA . 1997 Jul 8;94(14):7537-42.

Bloch M, Schmidt PJ, Danaceau MA, et al. Dehydroepiandrosterone treatment of midlife dysthymia. Biol Psychiatry. 1999;45(12):1533-41.

Buvat J . Androgen therapy with dehydroepiandrosterone. World J Urol . 2003 Nov;21(5):346-55. Epub 2003 Oct 10.

Jedrzejuk D, Medras M, et al. Dehydroepiandrosterone replacement in healthy men with age-related decline of DHEA-S: effects on fat distribution, insulin sensitivity and lipid metabolism. Aging Male . 2003 Sep;6(3):151-6.

Kalman DS, Colker CM, et al. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 3-acetyl-oxo-dehydroepiandreosterone in healthy overweight adults. Curr Therap Res . 2000;61(7):435-42.

Sulcova J, Hill M, et al. Effects of transdermal application of 7-oxo-DHEA on the levels of steroid hormones, gonadotropins and lipids in healthy men. Physiol Res . 2001;50(1):9-18.

Zenk JL, Kuskowsi MA. The use of 3-acetyl-7-oxo-dehydroepiandrosterone for augmenting immune response in the elderly. Presented at meeting of FASEB, April 17, 1994.

Moore MA, Thamavit W, et al. Modifying influence of dehydroepiandrosterone on the development of dihydroxy-di-n-propylnitrosamine-initiated lesions in the thyroid, lung and liver of F344 rats. Carcinogenesis . 1986 Feb;7(2):311-6.

Yang S, Fu Z, et al. [Anti-mutagenicity activity of dehydroepiandrosterone.] Zhonghua Zhong Liu Za Zhi . 2002 Mar;24(2):137-40.

Wolkowitz OM, Reus VI, Roberts E, et al. Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) treatment of depression. Biol Psychiatry. 1997;41(3):311-8.

Schwartz AG, Pashko LL. Cancer chemoprevention with the adrenocortical steroid dehydroepiandrosterone and structural analogs. J Cell Biochem Suppl . 1993;17G:73-9.

Schmidt PJ, Daly RC, Bloch M, et al. Dehydroepiandrosterone monotherapy in midlife-onset major and minor depression. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2005;62(2):154-62.

Wolkowitz OM, Reus VI, Keebler A, et al. Double-blind treatment of major depression with dehydroepiandrosterone. Am J Psychiatry. 1999;156(4):646-9.

Hirshman E, Wells E, Wierman ME, et al. The effect of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) on recognition memory decision processes and discrimination in postmenopausal women. Psychon Bull Rev. 2003;10(1):125-34.

K. Sreekumaran Nair, M.D., Ph.D., Robert A. Rizza, M.D., Peter O'Brien, Ph.D., Ketan Dhatariya, M.D., M.R.C.P., Kevin R. Short, Ph.D., Ajay Nehra, M.D., Janet L. Vittone, M.D., George G. Klee, M.D., Ananda Basu, M.D., Rita Basu, M.D., Claudio Cobelli, Ph.D., Gianna Toffolo, Ph.D., Chiara Dalla Man, Ph.D., Donald J. Tindall, Ph.D., L. Joseph Melton, III, M.D., Ph.D., Glenn E. Smith, Ph.D., Sundeep Khosla, M.D., and Michael D. Jensen, M.D. N Engl J Med 2006; 355:1647-1659 October 19, 2006

"DHEA: A Biologist's Perspective," Hornsby, Peter J., Ph.D., Journal of the American Geriatric Society, 1997;45:1395-1401.