DHEA, important source of sex steroids in men and even more in women

Prog Brain Res. 2010;182:97-148. doi: 10.1016/S0079-6123(10)82004-7.


A major achievement from 500 million years of evolution is the establishment of a high secretion rate of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) by the human adrenal glands coupled with the indroduction of menopause which stops secretion of estrogens by the ovary. Cessation of estrogen secretion at menopause eliminates the risks of endometrial hyperplasia and cancer which would result from non-opposed estrogen stimulation during the post-menopausal years. In fact, from the time of menopause, DHEA becomes the exclusive and tissue-specific source of sex steroids for all tissues except the uterus. Intracrinology, a term coined in 1988, describes the local formation, action and inactivation of sex steroids from the inactive sex steroid precursor DHEA. Over the past 25 years most, if not all, the genes encoding the human steroidogenic and steroid-inactivating enzymes have been cloned and sequenced and their enzymatic activity characterized. The problem with DHEA, however, is that its secretion decreases from the age of 30 years and is already decreased, on average, by 60% at time of menopause. In addition, there is a large variability in the circulating levels of DHEA with some post-menopausal women having barely detectable serum concentrations of the steroid while others have normal values. Since there is no feedback mechanism controlling DHEA secretion within 'normal' values, women with low DHEA will remain with such a deficit of sex steroids for their remaining lifetime. Since there is no other significant source of sex steroids after menopause, one can reasonably believe that low DHEA is involved, in association with the aging process, in a series of medical problems classically associated with post-menopause, namely osteoporosis, muscle loss, vaginal atrophy, fat accumulation, hot flashes, skin atrophy, type 2 diabetes, memory loss, cognition loss and possibly Alzheimer's disease. A recent randomized, placebo-controlled study has shown that all the signs and symptoms of vaginal atrophy, a classical problem recognized to be due to the hormone deficiency of menopause, can be rapidly improved or corrected by local administration of DHEA without systemic exposure to estrogens. In addition, the four domains of sexual dysfucntion are improved. For the other problems of menopause, although similar large scale, randomized and placebo-controlled studies usually remain to be performed, the available evidence already strongly suggests that they could be improved, corrected or even prevented by exogenous DHEA. In men, the contribution of adrenal DHEA to the total androgen pool has been measured at 40% in 65-75-year-old men. Such data stress the necessity of blocking both the testicular and adrenal sources of androgens in order to achieve optimal benefits in prostate cancer therapy. On the other hand, the comparable decrease in serum DHEA levels observed in both sexes has less consequence in men who continue to receive a practically constant supply of testicular sex steroids during their whole life. In fact, in men, the appearance of hormone-deficiency symptoms common to women is observed at a later age and with a lower degree of severity. Consequently, DHEA replacement has shown much more easily measurable beneficial effects in women. Most importantly, despite the non-scientific and unfortunate availability of DHEA as a food supplement in the United States, a situation that discourages rigorous clinical trials on the crucial physiological and therapeutic role of DHEA, no serious adverse event related to DHEA has ever been reported in the world literature (thousands of subjects exposed) or in the monitoring of adverse events by the FDA (millions of subjects exposed), thus indicating, as expected from its known physiology, the excellent safety profile of DHEA. With today's knowledge, one can reasonably suggest that DHEA offers the promise of a safe and efficient replacement therapy for the multiple problems related to hormone deficiency after menopause without the risks associated with estrogen-based or any other treatments.

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Glands / metabolism
  • Age Factors
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Anticarcinogenic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Breast / drug effects
  • Breast / metabolism
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / drug therapy
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / metabolism
  • Dehydroepiandrosterone / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Lipids
  • Male
  • Menopause / physiology
  • Obesity / metabolism
  • Osteoporosis, Postmenopausal / drug therapy
  • Osteoporosis, Postmenopausal / metabolism
  • Sex Factors
  • Tissue Distribution / physiology


  • Anticarcinogenic Agents
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones
  • Lipids
  • Dehydroepiandrosterone