Dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, has a growing reputation as an anti-aging supplement among vitamin users and doctors. Though the benefits continue to be supported by research, recent years have seen the debate in Congress regarding its over-the-counter availability. DHEA is a hormone from the androgen family. It is secreted from the adrenal glands, with production peaking early in life and gradually decreasing during adulthood. This is why DHEA is seen to many, including anti-aging medical professionals, as a “fountain of youth” supplement. This view might lack scientific proof, but the use of supplementation to combat low blood levels does not.

DHEA is valuable for those with significant, commonplace problems such as inflammation associated with poor diet and obesity, and depression. Additionally, a link has been found between low levels of DHEA and the development of metabolic syndrome, a complex illness that includes abnormal cholesterol levels, increased waistline and insulin resistance [Source: Mottl, Paolisso]. This illness can be a precursor to diabetes and heart disease. Parallel to the rise in obesity and diabetes, America and a growing number of other developed nations are experiencing a boom in the onset of metabolic syndrome.

In addition to proper nutrition, regular exercise and stress management, maintaining normal levels of DHEA is essential for controlling metabolic syndrome. Adequate DHEA levels help combat the symptoms that come with metabolic syndrome such as low sex drive and fatigue [Source: Arlt, Nordmark]. DHEA has also shown some benefit in the management of depression (more so for those who have prior readings of low DHEA in their blood) [Source: Schmidt] and for inflammation, which leads to heart disease, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease [Source: Haden].

Dosing for DHEA varies according to the patient and the condition. While some patients may not need any supplement, those with chronic inflammation may be extremely low in DHEA and could require a large amount. Men of smaller stature and women may have to take DHEA in very low amounts to avoid oversaturation. The starting dose should be determined in correlation with a patient’s history and laboratory readings. The blood test most commonly used to evaluate DHEA is called DHEA sulfate (DHEA-S). Though it can vary, the most accepted range for men is 50-560 micrograms per deciliters (mcg/dl), and 30-350 mcg/dl for women. For those striving to benefit from DHEA, many experts contend that patients should be somewhere in the mid-to-high range of normal [Source: Goepp]. Lab values may need to be revisited at various intervals to ensure the target range has been reached.

Side effects will differ between men and women, and are usually dose dependent. Women tend to convert excess DHEA into testosterone, which can lead to acne and facial hair growth. Men tend to convert the excess DHEA into estrogen, which can cause decreased libido or fatigue. Those experiencing the presence of these side effects, or a lack of effect, should have their blood levels monitored to reevaluate dosage. DHEA also comes as 7-keto DHEA. This alternative can be appealing to males as it doesn’t have the downstream conversion to estrogen.

Individuals with a history of cancer related to the prostate, uterus, ovary or breast might risk harm with unnecessary supplementation. The determination to use DHEA in these patients should be discussed with a doctor knowledgeable in DHEA use and function.

Like all the other hormones, DHEA is needed in balance. It can be an over-the-counter, cost-effective strategy for a wide range of problems in individuals with low levels, but for optimal dosing patients should consider consulting a physician.