Dehydroepiandrosterone, known as DHEA, has been termed the “mother” hormone for its vital role in creating androgens and estrogens. Normal levels of DHEA depend on age and sex, and women tend to have lower amounts than men. As you age, the volume of DHEA your body produces declines; however, certain conditions and possible lifestyle factors contribute to non-age-related reductions. DHEA is available as a dietary supplement, but can negatively interact with several medications and existing health conditions. Before taking supplemental DHEA, consult your physician.
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DHEA is a hormone manufactured in the adrenal glands of both men and women. The steroid precursor to sex hormones, DHEA metabolizes cholesterol to create androgens and estrogens. DHEA is a component of your body’s endocrine system, and part of a complex balance of hormones affected by diet, stress, reproductive status and age.
Normal DHEA Levels
DHEA level refers to the hormone concentration by volume in the bloodstream. According to the National Institutes of Health, normal blood levels of DHEA depend on age, and within each age group there is a significant range. For women, DHEA levels tend to peak during late adolescence, when the normal blood concentration ranges from 145 to 395 micrograms per deciliter. DHEA levels begin to naturally decline by the age of 30. While normal levels for women in their 20s fall between 65 and 380 µg/dL, for women in their 30s and 40s, the average normal range is 45 to 270 and 32 to 240 µg/dL, respectively. By the time women are in their 70s, their DHEA levels are roughly 20 percent of what they were at age 20.
Laboratory tests to determine whether DHEA levels fall within the normal range are performed as part of an assessment of adrenal gland function. DHEA tests are often administered in instances where women display male body characteristics, or for young girls entering premature pubescence. DHEA tests are becoming a more common assessment for individuals with generalized symptoms of exhaustion, weakness, loss of libido, depression and lethargy.
Certain conditions may contribute to lower-than-normal DHEA levels. Anorexia, type 2 diabetes, end-stage kidney disease and AIDS are associated with decreases in DHEA. Additionally, a number of medications, such as insulin, steroids and danazol, have been shown to reduce levels. Although the condition of adrenal fatigue is not a validated medical diagnosis, it has received substantial support across a number of health fields. Its proponents argue that chronic stress adversely impacts adrenal function, which in turn can diminish DHEA levels.
Supplemental DHEA is available over the counter at pharmacies and health food stores, and many products make bold claims about their varied health benefits. Supplemental DHEA has proven effective for increasing bone density, and is suggested to help with a number of health conditions, such as post-menopausal sexual changes, depression and chronic fatigue syndrome. However, more research is needed to support these claims. The National Institutes of Health advise that supplemental DHEA is likely safe when used for a few months. However, for women, sustained consumption can result in acne, facial hair growth and deepened voice, and may negatively interact with estrogen levels.