DHEA is an abbreviation for dehydroepiandrosterone, a hormone produced by your adrenal glands. Your adrenals are located above your kidneys. DHEA helps your body manage stress, supports your immune system, controls inflammation and plays a role in your sex drive and metabolic function, according to the Natural Medicine Encyclopedia. DHEA is a vital substance, but too much of the hormone can indicate an underlying medical condition.
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Normal DHEA Levels
DHEA is at its highest when you're young and decreases as you grow older. Normal levels of the hormone vary depending on your gender and age group. The National Institutes of Health MedlinePlus information service reports that both men and women experience their highest readings of DHEA in their late teens and early 20s. Women's DHEA ranges from 65 to 395 ug/dL between the ages of 18 to 29; readings may fall in the range of 32 to 270 ug/dL between the ages of 30 and 49. Females in their 50s and 60s can expect DHEA levels of 13 to 200; women older than 69 break the 100 ug mark, with average readings between 17 and 90 ug/dL.
Male DHEA levels similarly decline with age. Young men between 18 and 29 years old generally show DHEA levels from 108 to 640 ug/dL, with measurements dipping to between 95 and 530 during their 30s and 40s. Men in the 50- to 69-year-old age group usually measure between 42 and 310 ug/dL. DHEA drops to 28 to 175 ug/dL when men are in their 70s.
Causes of High Levels
As noted by the National Institutes of Health, DHEA is at its highest in early adulthood, but sometimes higher-than-normal levels can occur regardless of age. Adrenal disease is the main cause of high DHEA levels, according to the American Association for Clinical Chemistry. Adrenal tumors -- either benign or cancerous growths that attach themselves to the adrenal glands -- may cause an overproduction of the DHEA hormone. Adrenal hyperplasia, a swelling of the gland, can also cause high levels of DHEA.
Signs and Symptoms
Higher-than-normal levels of DHEA may manifest itself through a number of physical characteristics. MayoClinic.com explains that high levels of the hormone, particularly when used as a dietary supplement, may cause other hormone levels to increase. Hormone imbalances can cause hirsutism in women, a situation in which unwanted and excessive hair growth develops on the face and other areas of the body. Acne can also be a sign that DHEA is high and is causing estrogen and testosterone levels to become imbalanced. Another clinical sign of DHEA is a reduction in HDL, the beneficial type of cholesterol found in your body. The Natural Health Encyclopedia reports that high DHEA through supplementation may show itself by compromised liver function.
Diagnosis of high DHEA is achieved through blood testing, though the tests are usually only performed when symptoms such as male secondary sex characteristics in a female or early puberty in a male are seen. The American Association for Clinical Chemistry explains that DHEA levels are generally tested along with other hormones to determine the exact cause of the imbalance.
Treatment for high DHEA is not required if the condition is not causing symptoms. The National Adrenal Disease Foundation points out that some adrenal tumors are very small and asymptomatic, thus requiring no specific treatment. Surgical removal of larger tumors that secrete too much DHEA and cortisol, another hormone housed in the adrenal glands, may reverse symptoms and allow DHEA levels to return to normal.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.