© 1991-2010 Jerry Emanuelson


The adrenal glands produce the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) which has long been recognized as an important biomarker of aging.  DHEA levels decline with age, so that a 70 year-old typically only has about 10 percent as much DHEA as a 20 year-old.  By the time a person reaches 80 years, DHEA levels have usually declined to less than 5 percent of 20 year-old levels.

There are correlations between DHEA levels and a wide range of degenerative diseases.  Men who die of heart disease generally have significantly less DHEA than others of the same age.  Similarly, people with Alzheimer's disease and with many types of cancer have been shown to have below-normal age-adjusted DHEA levels.  For many years, there has been a question as to whether low DHEA levels were a cause or an effect of aging and degenerative diseases.  Current research indicates that low DHEA levels are a cause of many age related disorders and that oral supplementation with DHEA can slow some aspects of the onslaught of aging.

DHEA also appears to be useful in combating auto-immune disorders, especially lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus).  DHEA has demonstrated the potential for preventing or treating a broad range of other disorders including cancer (especially breast cancer), obesity, senile dementia, osteoporosis, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, and weakened immune systems.  Supplemental DHEA often markedly improves physical flexibility and endurance.

DHEA often decreases appetite by increasing the levels of cholecystokinin, the hormone that tells your brain that you've had enough to eat.  It also tends to inhibit the conversion of glucose to fat, which keeps people from gaining as much weight from eating carbohydrates as they otherwise would.

In some cases, DHEA can significantly improve one's cholesterol profile, raising HDL levels and lowering LDL levels.  This effect has not been substantiated in the scientific literature.  Scientific studies of the effect of DHEA on cholesterol have had mixed results.  In some individuals, though, there have been reports that DHEA has had quite positive effects.

Until 1996, DHEA was available mainly through compounding pharmacies* with a physician's prescription.  In mid-1996, over-the-counter DHEA began to become available in some health food stores and some mail-order supplement suppliers.  By 1997, it had become a widely-available nutritional supplement.

Typical dosages of DHEA range from 25 mg. per day upward.  Although nothing is perfectly safe, a 25 mg. per day dosage of DHEA is almost totally without risk of side effects, and will substantially increase DHEA levels in most people.  Anyone using more than 25 mg. per day should have their blood level of DHEA or DHEA sulfate checked occasionally and be under a physician's supervision.

Supplemental DHEA will increase androgen (male sex hormone) levels in women; and at some dosage women will experience the effects of this.  At doses above 100 mg. per day these androgen effects may begin to show up in things such as increased facial hair.  These effects are slow to develop and reversible, though.  You won't suddenly wake up with a beard.  In some instances, too much DHEA can cause acne in women.

The increase in male sex hormones in women caused by DHEA is not entirely a bad thing, if kept within limits.  The adrenal glands normally produce some male sex hormones, even in women.  Deficiencies in male sex hormones are not uncommon in women.  Modest increases in these hormones can increase characteristics such as motivation and sex drive.  Many women take DHEA primarily for its testosterone-enhancing effects.

In men or women, extremely high doses (1000 mg. or more per day, or the use of micronized DHEA powder or DHEA-alcohol solutions at more than about 200 mg. per day) may dangerously limit the output of the heart in response to exercise.

DHEA will dissolve in fats, oils and alcohol.  Liquid DHEA, which is usually DHEA dissolved in alcohol, is now available and is is claimed to be up to 4-5 times as well absorbed as DHEA capsules.  (My own personal experiments indicate that DHEA dissolved in alcohol is twice as well absorbed as capsules.)  DHEA capsules are somewhat better absorbed if taken with food.

In the human body, DHEA is converted to DHEA sulfate, which is water soluble.  Most of the DHEA in the bloodstream is DHEA sulfate.

The measurable benefits of supplemental DHEA are highly variable from one individual to another.  This has made it very difficult to obtain any proof of benefit in clinical studies for maintaining general health in large populations, although many people clearly obtain significant benefit from supplemental DHEA.  It is likely that DNA variants will be identified within the next two or three years that identify which individuals will most benefit from supplemental DHEA; but as of this writing, the reasons for these individual differences are unknown.

If you want to know your DHEA level and your own physician will not order such a test, you can request your own test through reliable independent services.  If you are in the United States, one way to get an DHEA test is to order a Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) Sulfate Blood Test from the Life Extension Foundation.  This test is sold by the Life Extension Foundation, but is actually performed by Labcorp, which is a large testing company that has about 1600 offices all across the United States where a sample of your blood for the test can be drawn.  Your test results are mailed to you a few days later.  You can check the Labcorp web site for the location of a Labcorp testing office near you.


Pregnenolone is a compound related to DHEA that has become the subject of renewed interest during the past decade.  Pregnenolone is made in the body from cholesterol.  Pregnenolone is the compound the body uses to make DHEA.  Like DHEA, pregnenolone levels drop with age, though not as drastically.  Pregnenolone is also the compound from which the hormone progesterone is made.

Pregnenolone was used frequently in the 1940s as an anti-inflammatory medicine for arthritis before the advent of more powerful anti-inflammatory drugs such as the corticosteroids.  Animal studies of pregnenolone indicate a powerful memory-enhancing effect.  It is not yet known how powerful this effect is in humans, but many people are trying pregnenolone since it already has a long safety record.  A typical pregnenolone dose for life extension purposes is in the range of 20 to 50 milligrams per day.  During the 1940s, doses were given for arthritis at about 500 mg. per day, with some of the controlled trials lasting up to two years.

*A compounding pharmacy is one that specializes in making capsules or liquids to a physician's specifications, rather than just counting out pills.

Next Chapter:  DEPRENYL