Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) also known as androstenolone or prasterone is an endogenous steroid hormone , that is produced in the adrenal glands,  the gonads, and the brain . DHEA is converted in the body to androstenedione, which then can be transformed into either testosterone or estrone (estrogenic hormone) . In bodybuilding supplements, it is often added as a muscle builder or fat burner.
DHEA-s (sulfate ester of DHEA) serves as a reservoir for DHEA with conversion by sulfotransferases . DHEA-s is the most abundant steroid in the body and it declines with age and this decline is thought to contribute to age-related decreased testosterone levels .
Effectiveness of Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) as Testosterone Booster
DHEA is a controversial hormone and its studies are inconclusive about its effectiveness as a testosterone booster. In fact, there are quite a few studies that show an increase in testosterone concentrations. A study with 100 mg DHEA in 16 young males ages 19+/-1 showed an increase in circulating DHEA by 2.5-fold, increased testosterone and reduced signs of muscle damage (lower muscle soreness was observed) . Another study  in young male soccer players (aged 19-22) using 100 mg DHEA for 28 days resulted in a significant increase of total testosterone (a 39% increase and 4% free testosterone increase), estradiol and DHEA levels. However, this increase in testosterone had no beneficial effects on body composition and muscle mass .
Several studies reported that serum sex steroid levels in both mature and young men were not significantly affected by DHEA supplementation and with only a minimal amount converted to testosterone and more to estrogen [7-9]. Another 8-week study conducted on young men (aged 23+/-4) found that a daily dose of 150 mg DHEA in combination with resistance-training did not affect serum concentrations of free and total testosterone or estrogen .
It appears that doses of DHEA ranging around 100-150 mg elevate testosterone levels but that does not translate to increased muscle mass by itself. There are too few studies combining dehydroepiandrosterone and weight lifting. Its effectiveness in the young population remains uncertain.
Testosterone Boosting Properties in Elderly
DHEA seems to be more effective in the elderly. The dose of 50 mg DHEA per day increased muscle mass and strength in combination with weight-lifting in elderly individuals . Serum testosterone was not significantly affected in men, serum estradiol increased about 30% in the men and about 70% in the women and there was a modest (not significant) increase in serum IGF-1. A study by Weiss and associates  that was confounded with low dose Vitamin D and high-dose calcium reported that after 2 years of DHEA supplementation (50 mg per day) free testosterone, estrogen and IGF-1 were increased. A more recent study by Weiss et al.  also reported a modest increase in free testosterone in elderly (65–75 year) men with the same dose. In postmenopausal women, low-dose DHEA (25 mg per day) was able to increase all steroid hormones in the serum and reduce SHBG and cortisol over the course of 1 year . While in hypoadrenal men 4 months of 50 mg of DHEA administration had no effect on serum testosterone levels .
DHEA and Aging
The secretion and the blood levels of the adrenal steroid DHEA and its sulfate ester (DHEA-s) decrease profoundly with age . Because of that, some researchers suggest that supplementing with DHEA in order to fight declining DHEA levels might be beneficial. However, the results are inconclusive.
DHEA is commonly used for slowing signs of aging but according to NCCIH , there is not good scientific evidence to support this use. However, it does seem to improve skin appearance in women after menopause and in people over the age of 60 years , particularly in terms of hydration, epidermal thickness, sebum production, and pigmentation .
Side Effects and Risks of DHEA
It is noted on WebMD.com  that: “DHEA is possibly safe for most people when used for just a few months. It can cause some side effects including acne, hair loss, stomach upset, and high blood pressure.” High doses of DHEA may be toxic to liver cells and may stop the body from making the hormone itself .
After a year of supplementing with 50mg of DHEA daily to 132 patients, no potentially harmful accumulation of DHEA-s and active steroids was recorded . DHEA has also been used safely by mouth for up to two years .
Do not use DHEA if you are pregnant or breast-feeding.
- Mo, Qianxing, Shi-fang Lu, and Neal G. Simon. “Dehydroepiandrosterone and its metabolites: differential effects on androgen receptor trafficking and transcriptional activity.” The Journal of steroid biochemistry and molecular biology 99.1 (2006): 50-58.
- Stecher, Paul G. “The Merck Index.” Soil Science 90.1 (1960): 77.
- Schulman, Robert A., Carolyn Dean, and William M. Boggs. “Solve it with Supplements: The Best Herbal and Nutritional Supplements to Prevent and Heal More Than 100 Common Health Problems.” Medical Acupuncture 19.4 (2007): 235-236.
- Arlt W. Adrenal Androgens. Endotext.com. Available at: www.endotext.org/aging/aging12/aging12.htm. Accessed 10, Feb 2013
- Liao, Yi-Hung, et al. “Effect of dehydroepiandrosterone administration on recovery from mix-type exercise training-induced muscle damage.” European Journal of Applied Physiology (2012): 1-9.
- Ostojic, Sergej M., Julio Calleja, and Morteza Jourkesh. “Effects of short-term dehydroepiandrosterone supplementation on body composition in young athletes.” Chinese Journal of Physiology 53.1 (2010): 19-25.
- Kroboth, Patricia D., et al. “DHEA and DHEA-S: a review.” The Journal of Clinical Pharmacology 39.4 (1999): 327-348.
- Morales, A. J., et al. “The effect of six months treatment with a 100 mg daily dose of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) on circulating sex steroids, body composition and muscle strength in age‐advanced men and women.” Clinical endocrinology 49.4 (2002): 421-432.
- Vogiatzi, Maria G., et al. “Dehydroepiandrosterone in morbidly obese adolescents: effects on weight, body composition, lipids, and insulin resistance.” Metabolism 45.8 (1996): 1011-1015.
- Brown, Gregory A., et al. “Effect of oral DHEA on serum testosterone and adaptations to resistance training in young men.” Journal of Applied Physiology 87.6 (1999): 2274-2283.
- Find a Vitamin or Supplement – DHEA. Retrieved from WebMD.com at 11. May 2013
- Steven D. Ehrlich. “Dehydroepiandrosterone.” Retrieved from University of Maryland Medical Center at 24. Aug 2014
- Komesaroff, Paul A. “Unravelling the enigma of dehydroepiandrosterone: moving forward step by step.” Endocrinology 149.3 (2008): 886-888.
- Lamberts, Steven WJ, Annewieke W. Van den Beld, and Aart-Jan van der Lely. “The endocrinology of aging.” Science 278.5337 (1997): 419-424.
- Villareal, Dennis T., and John O. Holloszy. “DHEA enhances effects of weight training on muscle mass and strength in elderly women and men.” American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism 291.5 (2006): E1003-E1008.
- Weiss, Edward P., et al. “Dehydroepiandrosterone replacement therapy in older adults: 1-and 2-y effects on bone.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 89.5 (2009): 1459-1467.
- Weiss, Edward P., et al. “Dehydroepiandrosterone replacement therapy in older adults improves indices of arterial stiffness.” Aging cell 11.5 (2012): 876-884.
- Genazzani, Alessandro D., et al. “Long-term low-dose dehydroepiandrosterone oral supplementation in early and late postmenopausal women modulates endocrine parameters and synthesis of neuroactive steroids.” Fertility and sterility 80.6 (2003): 1495-1501.
- Libe, R., et al. “Effects of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) supplementation on hormonal, metabolic and behavioral status in patients with hypoadrenalism.” Journal of endocrinological investigation 27.8 (2004): 736-741.
- Baulieu, Etienne-Emile, et al. “Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), DHEA sulfate, and aging: contribution of the DHEAge Study to a sociobiomedical issue.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 97.8 (2000): 4279-4284.