Dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, is made from cholesterol by the adrenal glands, which sit on top of each kidney. It is converted by the body into two other important hormones: testosterone and estrogen.
For most people, DHEA production peaks in the mid-20’s and then gradually declines with age. The effects of this decline, including its role in the aging process, are unclear. Even so, some proponents claim that over-the-counter DHEA supplements can improve energy and strength and boost immunity. Claims are also made that supplements increase muscle and decrease fat. To date, there is no conclusive scientific evidence that DHEA supplements have any of these benefits.
The conversion of naturally produced DHEA into estrogen and testosterone is highly individualized. There is no way to predict who will make more or less of these hormones. Having an excess of testosterone or estrogen in your body could be risky.
Scientists do not yet know the effects of long-term (defined as over 1 year) use of DHEA supplements. Early indications are that these supplements, even when taken briefly, may have detrimental effects on the body, including liver damage. But the picture is not clear. Two short-term studies showed that taking DHEA supplements has no harmful effects on blood, prostate, or liver function. However, these studies were too small to lead to broader conclusions about the safety or efficacy of DHEA supplementation.
Researchers are working to find more definite answers about DHEA’s effects on aging, muscles, and the immune system. In the meantime, if you are thinking about taking DHEA supplements, be aware that the effects are not fully known and might turn out to cause more harm than good.