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July 12, 2023 11 min read

The human body sure is pretty fantastic, isn't it? It even has its very own hormone production whiz: DHEA, also known as dehydroepiandrosterone. Not only does DHEA help churn out other important hormones like testosterone and estrogen, but it's also caught up in a whole bunch of other body business.

And the world is taking notice. DHEA supplements are popping up everywhere as people seek to boost their health and feel their best, all thanks to a lot of media attention of late. Many swear by its power to crank up the sizzle in their sex lives, pump up muscles, turn back the tick-tock of aging, and even tackle symptoms of hypothyroidism. But does it live up to its hype? Can it really improve your hypothyroidism symptoms? Here's what you need to know.

What is dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)?

Dehydroepiandrosterone, commonly abbreviated as DHEA, is a hormone produced by our adrenal glands. While your adrenal gland predominantly produces the hormone DHEA, with a smaller contribution coming from the ovaries and testes. This steroid hormone serves an essential function in our bodies by contributing to the production of critical sex hormones: estrogen and testosterone. In both your adrenal gland and liver, DHEA undergoes a transformation and becomes DHEA Sulfate (DHEA-S).

During our prime years of health, typically from ages 20 to 35, DHEA production reaches its peak. However, as age progresses, production levels start to decline significantly. By the time we reach our later years, DHEA levels may dwindle to just one-tenth to one-twentieth of the amount present during our prime years.

The production of DHEA commences with a signal from the hypothalamus in the brain, which releases corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH). This hormone communicates with the pituitary gland, instructing it on the quantity of DHEA the adrenal glands need to produce. In response, the pituitary secretes adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which the adrenal glands then receive and commence the production of DHEA.

It's important to note that DHEA doesn't restrict its function to just producing sex hormones. It also plays a role in several other crucial physiological processes, such as bolstering the immune system, regulating the body's stress responses, and potentially influencing cognitive and memory function.

High DHEA symptoms

People who have lupus, Chron's disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, or AIDS may also have low DHEA levels.

Excessive DHEA levels can manifest in several symptoms, which include hirsutism (male hair growth patterns and excess hair), hair loss, and behavioral changes like aggression and irritability. Other signs can encompass sleep disruptions, acne, or oily skin.

These elevated DHEA levels, however, aren't to be taken lightly; they often signal underlying health issues. For instance, in females, high DHEA is frequently linked with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). Moreover, a surge in DHEA levels is correlated with an increased risk for breast cancer.

Low DHEA symptoms: Female and male may have different symptoms

Low levels of dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, may manifest through various symptoms that can have a significant impact on both men and women.

Among the range of symptoms potentially tied to reduced DHEA levels, one is likely to experience psychological impacts like depression and anxiety. Sexual health may also take a blow. People with low DHEA may have a decreased sex drive. Men may experience erectile dysfunction, and women might grapple with dampened libido.

But the possible symptoms of low DHEA levels do not stop at mental and sexual well-being. More tangible health conditions could surface, such as heart disease and weight gain or obesity, signs of diabetes, and a decrease in bone density. What makes the matter complex is that many of these symptoms are also associated with lowering levels of testosterone or estrogen, which can make it challenging to attribute them directly to low DHEA.

How do doctors diagnose low DHEA levels?

Suspicions of a hormonal imbalance may prompt your healthcare provider or an endocrinologist to measure your DHEA levels using a simple, straightforward blood test. It's important to inform your healthcare provider if you're taking DHEA supplements or any other substances containing DHEA before undergoing this test.

Your DHEA levels might not always remain static; they could exhibit fluctuations throughout the day. However, the levels of DHEA-S, another form of DHEA, remain relatively stable during the day.

Interpreting DHEA test results is not a one-size-fits-all situation. It demands a personalized approach, as factors such as age, gender, and health history can skew the values. Even the specific laboratory conducting the tests can yield varied results. Therefore, it's critical to have a detailed discussion with your healthcare provider about what exactly your test results reflect about your health status.

Speaking of normal DHEA levels, they can differ based on age, sex, and a host of other factors. If the tested values fall within the normal range, it means your adrenal glands are functioning well. Low DHEA levels might suggest inadequately performing adrenal glands, which could stem from damage to these glands or a malfunctioning pituitary gland that secretes hormones stimulating the adrenal glands. Having low levels of DHEA may also mean that you have hypopituitarism, a condition in which the pituitary doesn't make enough pituitary hormones. Moreover, specific medications, such as prednisone, may temporarily hinder the adrenal glands' function.

How are low levels of DHEA treated?

As an integral precursor to a range of steroids, DHEA sulfate plays a significant role in maintaining hormonal balance, primarily in women and individuals of older age. It interacts closely with neurotransmitter receptors in the brain, influencing mood and sexuality, and provides assistance in managing mood disorders associated with adrenal insufficiency.

Despite the seemingly mild risk associated with low DHEA symptoms (sometimes also called DHEA deficiency syndrome), treatment may still be necessary in certain situations. However, the medical community does not hold a unanimous stance on how to address low DHEA symptoms. While there is evidence supporting the use of DHEA supplementation or DHEA replacement therapy, it has yet to achieve widespread recognition as a standard medical treatment.

What are DHEA supplements, and what are they used for?

DHEA supplements, derived predominantly from wild yam or soy, are believed to offer a host of potential health benefits. The active ingredient in these supplements is dehydroepiandrosterone, also known by several alternate names such as 3β-hydroxyandrost-5-en-17-one, 3β-hydroxy-5-androsten-17-one, androstenolone, and prasterone. Its use comes with specific safety considerations. It is contraindicated for children, pregnant or nursing individuals, and individuals with a history of hormone-sensitive cancers.

People often turn to supplementation with DHEA as a response to the natural decline in our bodies' DHEA levels that accompanies aging. Many age-related physiological shifts are postulated to be inextricably linked with these diminishing DHEA levels. Therefore, ramping up DHEA intake through supplements may provide assistance in several ways, such as:


DHEA supplements—even though they're well-known for their potential to restore declining hormone levels—have also sparked interest in the field of anti-aging studies. That's why the hormone is sometimes called 'the fountain of youth hormone.' Researchers hypothesize that maintaining higher levels of DHEA, which naturally decrease with age, may help slow down the aging process. While some small studies have reported positive results related to the use of DHEA supplements, there are also studies that found no such effect.

In a somewhat theoretical view, DHEA supplements may decelerate the aging process by restoring estrogen and testosterone levels. These particular hormones are known to stimulate the production of collagen in the skin, making it fuller and less prone to wrinkles.

There are suggestions from several smaller studies that DHEA supplements could help in decreasing, or possibly reversing, skin thinning, also known as 'skin atrophy.' However, the limitations of these studies—often as small as single case studies—make it difficult to come to a general conclusion. A review in 2014 found no clear proof of an anti-aging effect from DHEA but did suggest that larger-scale trials might identify some benefits, indicating that DHEA could be more than just an overrated dietary supplement.


Various research has shown inconsistent results regarding the efficiency of DHEA in treating depression, especially in cases that are resistant to conventional treatments. Some studies have found a positive effect of daily DHEA supplementation on mild depressive symptoms, asserting a potential utility as a treatment option. However, other investigations have shown no noteworthy effect, emphasizing the need for further research before making any solid conclusions.

Depression, a complex and multifaceted condition, involves several neurohormones. Some have hypothesized that DHEA may aid in stabilizing these, thereby alleviating depressive symptoms. However, the relationship between DHEA levels and depression remains unclear and highly disputed.

Research on DHEA levels in women going through menopause further illustrates this ambiguity. Some studies registered higher DHEA levels in menopausal women with depression as compared to those without it. Conversely, other research found an inverse relationship, with more severe depression correlating with lower DHEA levels.

On the other hand, a 2020 review involving 15 randomized controlled studies concluded that DHEA might benefit some individuals with clinical depression. Participants in these studies, on average, demonstrated a more notable improvement from DHEA than a placebo. However, the effects were not significant enough to warrant a recommendation of DHEA as a standalone treatment.

Furthermore, the review underscored an issue in the overall quality of the included studies, further complicating endeavors to establish an accurate understanding of DHEA's potential role in treating depression. Hence, a necessity arises for additional rigorous and high-quality research to elucidate the exact nature of DHEA's influence on depression.

It is essential to remember that while exploring potential treatments is significant, individual responses to depression treatments often differ based on a variety of factors, including hormonal status, genetic background, and overall health.

Therefore, even if future research does establish a more definitive link between DHEA supplementation and improvements in depression, it will not be the magic bullet for everyone. Treatment for depression often involves a combination of strategies, including medication, therapy, lifestyle modifications, and, potentially, supplements like DHEA.

Sexual function

In women, particularly postmenopausal women, research suggests that DHEA supplementation may help alleviate some sexual dysfunction issues. The potential benefits are twofold. Firstly, DHEA could potentially enhance libido and arousal, which are often compromised during menopause due to estrogen depletion. Secondly, DHEA supplementation has been shown to increase vaginal lubrication, thereby reducing pain during sexual intercourse.

Intriguingly, in 2016, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a form of DHEA known as Intrarosa (prasterone). This preparation is used as a vaginal suppository and has been shown to effectively decrease vaginal dryness and associated pain during sex in postmenopausal women, with no significant side effects reported in clinical studies.

Besides the benefits to sexual function, DHEA has also been examined for its role in fertility. Some studies suggest that DHEA supplementation might augment the chances of fertilization, potentially providing significant aid in infertility treatment. For instance, a 2021 study involving 77 women undergoing in-vitro fertilization (IVF) reported a positive finding. Women aged over 38 who were given DHEA supplements were more likely to conceive than those who weren't. It's important to note, however, that this study's findings were limited due to its small size.

Moreover, supporting this finding, a 2015 review in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews concluded that DHEA appears to improve birth rates in females who initially do not respond to IVF treatment. However, the same beneficial effects were not observed in other groups.

Other benefits

Research has delved into the therapeutic role that DHEA might play in health issues such as lupus, adrenal insufficiency, irritable bowel disease, and asthma. These trials have been fairly small in size, and thus far, the results have not resulted in any conclusive evidence.

In addition to these conditions, DHEA supplements have sparked curiosity due to their potential effect on depression, particularly mild to moderate depression experienced by middle-aged individuals. A small six-week study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health provided some support for this claim, suggesting that DHEA could potentially serve as a new treatment solution. Furthermore, some evidence has also suggested possible benefits of DHEA supplementation in the elderly for improving aging skin.

Can DHEA supplementation improve thyroid function?

DHEA might play a role in thyroid health. This idea came from looking at people with Addison's disease, a condition where the body doesn't produce enough hormones. It's common for people with this disease to also have an underperforming thyroid, a condition known as hypothyroidism. In such cases, the DHEA hormone levels can get affected too, which leads scientists to wonder if there's a connection.

A small study found that people with hypothyroidism had lower DHEA levels than those with a normally working thyroid. However, in people with an overactive thyroid, which is called hyperthyroidism, the DHEA levels were pretty much normal, but some closely connected hormone levels were significantly higher.

Interestingly, symptoms like fatigue and loss of interest in sex, often seen in both hypothyroidism and in those with low DHEA, point further toward a possible link between DHEA and thyroid function.

While these symptoms and studies hint that DHEA supplements might help improve thyroid health, the fact is, we just don't know yet. There's a need for more thorough studies before we can be sure about DHEA's role in thyroid function and how much of it should be taken in supplement form. So, while it's an exciting area to explore, for now, it's best to have a chat with your doctor before starting any new supplements like DHEA.

What are the side effects of DHEA?

DHEA and hypothyroidism

Supplementing with Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) isn't without its risks. Although this hormone is naturally produced in the body, taking it in supplement form might lead to several side effects, some potentially uncomfortable.

One of the main concerns associated with DHEA supplementation is its effects on estrogen and testosterone levels. An increase in these hormones may result in adverse outcomes. As such, side effects of DHEA supplementation can range from minor skin changes to more notable hormonal shifts.

Common side effects include oily skin and acne outbreaks. Some individuals might experience skin thickening. Hair loss is also reported, and in women, facial hair growth and disruptions to the menstrual cycle can occur. These side effects are associated with how DHEA can influence the testosterone and estrogen levels in the body.

Other potential side effects include stomach upset, high blood pressure, and headaches. Trouble sleeping or insomnia is also reported by some individuals. For some people, fatigue and nasal congestion might be bothersome. In more severe instances, a rapid or irregular heartbeat could be a concern.

In the case of DHEA being used as a vaginal suppository, such as Intrarosa, a mild vaginal discharge is the most common side effect. There are also reports of unwanted effects like abnormal hair growth (hirsutism), which may result in a deeper voice in women, and abnormal breast growth in males, known as gynecomastia. These symptoms are more likely to occur at higher doses or if the supplement is taken for extended periods.

Some people may also experience unfavorable changes in cholesterol levels, underscoring the need for careful management and regular check-ups while on DHEA supplementation.

Despite DHEA being generally regarded as safe when consumed at doses of 50 mg daily, the potential side effects and lack of long-term studies on DHEA necessitate cautious use. As always, embarking on any new supplementation routine, including DHEA, should be under the guidance and surveillance of a healthcare professional to ensure safe and appropriate use.

The bottom line: There's still no conclusive evidence of DHEA benefits

Understanding the complex world of hormones and their impact on our bodies can indeed be tricky. While the hormone DHEA, or dehydroepiandrosterone, has been capturing increased interest due to its potential applications in treating hypothyroidism, it's important to note that the conclusive evidence is yet to surface. Advancements in research in the future might reveal concrete findings supporting the use of DHEA in tackling hypothyroidism.

In the meantime, for those dealing with hypothyroidism, existing tried-and-tested treatments are at their disposal. Primary among these is thyroid hormone replacement therapy, which includes levothyroxine and natural desiccated thyroid (NDT).

Levothyroxine is a synthetic form of thyroxine (T4). NDT, on the other hand, is a natural thyroid hormone replacement medication made from dried and powdered pig thyroid glands. It provides both of the thyroid hormones that our body usually makes: T3 and T4. So while levothyroxine is a 'synthetic' option, NDT offers a more 'natural' alternative that has been serving those with hypothyroidism successfully for decades. The best part is both levothyroxine and NDT are backed by substantial medical evidence and have been shown to significantly improve the quality of life in people with hypothyroidism.

If you're contemplating a shift towards natural alternatives to manage your hypothyroidism, consider checking out VitaliThy, a natural desiccated thyroid you can buy online. Thus, it offers the convenience of doorstep delivery. Originating from Vietnam, VitaliThy falls under the supplement category due to the distinctive regulations between the US and Vietnam. Nonetheless, rest assured about its quality as it adheres to the rigorous criteria laid down by the Good Manufacturing Practices from the Vietnamese Ministry of Agriculture, an authority renowned for its strict regulations.

To close, your journey towards optimal health will undoubtedly involve several choices, with each holding the promise of bringing you closer to feeling your best. Whether or not the use of DHEA supplements will be part of that journey remains to be seen. In the meantime, thyroid hormone replacement therapy via medications like levothyroxine and NDT offers proven routes back to feeling energized and enjoying life. As always, consult with your healthcare provider to work out a plan that suits your specific needs. The ultimate goal remains a healthy, fulfilled, and symptom-free life. Here's to your health!

Wojciech Majda
Wojciech Majda

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