Harvard Men's Health Watch

DHEA and health: More questions than answers

Since dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) was discovered in 1934, scientists have been probing its metabolism, endocrinologists have been studying its functions, doctors have been debating its uses and abuses, and the supplement industry has been touting its virtues. It's a confusing mix of science, speculation, and commerce. What is the status of this controversial chemical?

What is it?

DHEA is a steroid hormone. Like cortisol and the sex hormones, it's produced by the body, with cholesterol as its main building block. Most of that production occurs in the adrenal glands, small structures that sit on top of the kidneys at the rear of the abdomen. Lesser amounts are also manufactured in the intestinal tract and brain. Most of the DHEA in the bloodstream circulates in the form of a derivative, DHEA sulfate (DHEAS). The intestines also convert DHEA supplements into DHEAS before the hormone enters the blood. Since DHEA and DHEAS are so closely related and can be converted into each other by the body, it's reasonable to consider them together as DHEA.

By any name, DHEA is a weak androgen, or male hormone. The body converts most of its DHEA into androstenedione; yes, it's the very same androgen made famous by Mark McGwire during his epic home-run season. But the metabolism of DHEA does not stop with "andro"; instead, the body converts it to a wide array of androgens and estrogens, including the male hormone testosterone and the female hormone estradiol.

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