Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a naturally occurring steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands of both men and women. The function of this hormone in the body is not fully understood, although it is known to be a precursor to estrogen and testosterone, two important sex hormones. As with many other hormones, levels of this hormone change with age, with the body producing significant qualities starting around age seven, and peaking in the mid-20s. As people age, their DHEA levels decline.
Several companies manufacture DHEA as a nutritional supplement, claiming that it can be used in the treatment of Alzheimer's Disease, systemic lupus erythematosus, mood disorders, and aging. This hormone has also be sold historically as a weight loss supplement and muscle building aid. The hormone is also used medically in patients with adrenal insufficiency to help their bodies retain a normal hormone balance.
Because DHEA is in the public domain and it cannot be patented, drug companies are reluctant to perform research on it. As a result, very few rigorous studies have been performed to explore the function of this hormone, and to confirm or refute claims about its usage. This makes it difficult to determine whether or not the touted uses for the nutritional supplement are valid, especially since many claims make the mistake of confusing correlation with causation, assuming that declining levels of DHEA with age must mean that the hormone is involved in the aging process.
In fact, using DHEA supplements can be dangerous. This hormone has been linked with reproductive cancers and breast cancer, and taking hormone supplements can lead to a hormone imbalance in the body. Patients who are interested in using DHEA should do so under the supervision of an endocrinologist who will regularly check hormone levels to confirm that the dosage is appropriate, in addition to screening the patient for early signs of developing side effects.
When using DHEA as a nutritional supplement, patients should also make sure to inform medical care providers, as the use of any nutritional supplement or medication can vary the approach to diagnosis and treatment. Patients should be able to provide a list of all of the substances they are taking, along with their dosages, and it can help to keep a chart or to note medications down on a medical information card to ensure that this data will be handy when it is needed by a physician.