Hormones: DHEA

An excerpt from the book, “Your Blood Never Lies: How to Read a Blood Test for a Longer, Healthier Life” by James B. LaValle, RPh, CCN, ND. Read additional excerpts or buy the whole book.

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a building block of steroid hormones that is produced predominantly in the adrenal glands. It serves as a precursor to the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen in both men and women. DHEA is also a building block of the stress hormone cortisol and supports immune system function. DHEA may also increase insulin sensitivity, enhance fat metabolism, and act as an antioxidant.

There are two types of dehydroepiandrosterone: DHEA and its sulfate form, dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS). Because DHEAS remains in the bloodstream longer the DHEA, doctors generally test DHEAS numbers when they suspect a problem with this hormone. Typically, DHEAS levels are high in newborns and drop significantly after birth. They increase during puberty, peak soon after, and decline with age. Normal ranges are as follows.

Category Age DHEAS Normal Range (mcg/dL)
Men 18 to 19 108 to 441
20 to 29 280 to 640
30 to 39 120 to 520
40 to 49 95 to 530
50 to 59 70 to 310
60 to 69 42 to 290
69+ 28 to 175
Women 18 to 19 145 to 395
20 to 29 65 to 380
30 to 39 45 to 270
40 to 49 32 to 240
50 to 59 26 to 200
60 to 69 13 to 130
69+ 17 to 90

Keep in mind that reference ranges can differ slightly from lab to lab, so check the listing on your blood test for the range that applies to you.


DHEA levels are naturally higher during youth, but there are a few conditions that can cause this hormone to become elevated beyond the normal range, including:

  • Adrenal tumors
  • Hyperplasia (adrenal swelling)
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)

DHEA levels can vary widely from person to person. Your doctor will be able to verify whether or not the amount of this hormone in your blood is a problem.


Because of its association with both male and female sex hormones, high DHEA levels can create a number of distressing symptoms. They can cause women to develop facial hair, male pattern baldness, and a deeper voice in a process known as masculinization. They can also lead to feminine traits in men, such as increased breast tissue and testicular wasting. Other possible symptoms include fatigue,  sweating, and acne.


Because high DHEA is mainly associated with medical conditions such as adrenal tumors and PCOS, your doctor will have to treat these underlying issues in order to normalize this hormone.


Although DHEA levels decline naturally with age, they may also be lowered by conditions such as:

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  • Autoimmune diseases such Addison’s disease, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis
  • Chronic stress

Unfortunately, some of the medications used to treat symptoms of these illnesses can also deplete DHEA in the body. These drugs include:

  • Corticosteroids, including dexamethasone (Decadron), methylprednisolone (Medrol), and hydrocortisone
  • Insulin
  • Pain medications, including opiates and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve)

Do not, however, attempt to adjust the dosage of your medication on your own. If your DHEA is low, your doctor will suggest the best way to remedy the problem.


Symptoms of low DHEA include extreme fatigue, muscle and joint pain, weight gain, trouble sleeping, lowered immunity, loss of sexual interest, decreased bone density, depression, and reduced muscle mass. Pay attention to these signs, as they can lead to conditions such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, or osteoporosis. Interestingly, low DHEA—especially when combined with high cortisol  levels—can also damage the hippocampus (memory center of the brain), in turn leading to short-term  memory loss.


To effectively treat low DHEA levels, adjustments to lifestyle and diet are crucial. Supplements can also prove beneficial.


There are several natural products available that can help you cope with stress, as seen in the table below. Do not take any supplement to treat low levels of DHEA without speaking to your doctor first. You should also consult your doctor about exploring other treatment options, such as bioidentical hormone replacement therapy, depending on the underlying cause of your imbalance.

Supplement Dosage Considerations
Ashwagandha (standardized to 1.5-percent withanolides and 1-percent alkaloids) 450 to 900 mg once a day. Use with caution when taking sedatives and hypnotics such as barbiturates, as their effects may be increased. May also alter thyroid hormone levels, so check with your doctor before using if you have a thyroid disorder. Consult your doctor before taking if you are on blood thinners or antiplatelet drugs. Substances similar to ashwagandha (adaptogens) that may also be beneficial include Rhodiola, American ginseng, and Manchurian ginseng.
DHEA 25 to 50 mg once a day. Regular blood tests are required when using this supplement. Do not use if you have a hormonesensitive condition, such as breast cancer or uterine fibroids. Avoid use if you have a mood disorder or depression, liver problems, low HDL cholesterol, PCOS, or are pregnant or breastfeeding. If you are diabetic, monitor your blood sugar closely while taking DHEA.
Relora 250 mg two to three times a day. This supplement helps alleviate stress by reducing the body’s physiological response. Since it may cause drowsiness, do not take before driving an automobile or working with or around heavy machinery.
Whey protein 44 g once a day (added to a beverage). Studies have shown that whey protein is a form of protein that is both easily digested and superior to other proteins for muscle building. It has also been reported to improve immunity and work as an antioxidant in the body. However, high doses can cause increased bowel movements, nausea, thirst, bloating, cramps, reduced appetite, fatigue, and headaches. Avoid use if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.


If chronic stress is behind decreased DHEA, do your best to eliminate the source of stress from your life. Getting at least eight hours of sleep every night can also help reduce stress, as can exercising aerobically for approximately thirty minutes a day, three to four times a week. As low DHEA levels may be associated with inflammation, it is wise to cut back on foods that can have an inflammatory reaction in your body, such as refined sugars and carbohydrates, fried food, baked goods, lunch meats, and fast food. Additionally, avoid eating items that may cause hormone imbalances, such as nonorganic meat and dairy, chemical additives and preservatives, and artificial sweeteners. Increase your consumption of antioxidant-rich foods, including yellow and red peppers, squashes, tomatoes, green leafy vegetables, garlic, onions, and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Also, be sure to quit smoking, as this habit negatively affects DHEA levels. In many cases, DHEA levels will return to normal by reducing stress, which decreases the demands of cortisol production in the body. Stress management through yoga, meditiation, or prayer have been shown to have a positive effect on stress response.


Last Updated:  August 16, 2018
Originally Published: August 1, 2016