Physiological changes in dehydroepiandrosterone are not reflected by serum levels of active androgens and estrogens but of their metabolites: intracrinology

J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1997 Aug;82(8):2403-9. doi: 10.1210/jcem.82.8.4161.


This study analyzes in detail the serum concentration of the active androgens and estrogens, as well as a series of free and conjugated forms of their precursors and metabolites, after daily application for 2 weeks of 10 mL 20% dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) solution on the skin to avoid first passage through the liver. In men, DHEA administration caused 175%, 90%, 200% and 120% increases in the circulating levels of DHEA and its sulfate (DHEA-S), DHEA-fatty acid esters, and androst-5-ene-3 beta,17 beta-diol, respectively, with a return to basal values 7 days after cessation of the 14-day treatment. Serum androstenedione increased by approximately 80%, whereas serum testosterone and dihydrotestosterone (DHT) remained unchanged. In parallel with the changes in serum DHEA, the concentrations of the conjugated metabolites of DHT, namely androsterone glucuronide, androstane-3 alpha,17 beta-diol-G, and androstane-3 beta,17 beta-diol-G increased by about 75%, 50%, and 75%, respectively, whereas androsterone-sulfate increased 115%. No consistent change was observed in serum estrone (E1) or estradiol (E2) in men receiving DHEA, whereas serum E1-sulfate and E2-sulfate were slightly and inconsistently increased by about 20%, and serum cortisol and aldosterone concentrations were unaffected by DHEA administration. Almost superimposable results were obtained in women for most steroids except testosterone, which was about 50% increased during DHEA treatment. This increase corresponded to about 0.8 nM testosterone, an effect undetectable in men because they already have much higher (approximately 15 nM) basal testosterone levels. In women, the serum levels of the conjugated metabolites of DHT, namely androsterone glucuronide, androstane-3 alpha,17 beta-diol-G, androstane-3 beta,17 beta-diol-G, and androsterone-sulfate were increased by 125%, 140%, 120% and 150%, respectively. The present study demonstrates that the serum concentrations of testosterone, DHT, E1, and E2 are poor indicators of total androgenic and estrogenic activity. However, the esterified metabolites of DHT appear as reliable markers of the total androgen pool, because they directly reflect the intracrine formation of androgens in the tissues possessing the steroidogenic enzymes required to transform the inactive precursors DHEA and DHEA-S into DHT. As well demonstrated in women, who synthesize almost all their androgens from DHEA and DHEA-S, supplementation with physiological amounts of exogeneous DHEA permits the biosynthesis of androgens limited to the appropriate target tissues without leakage of significant amounts of active androgens into the circulation. This local or intracrine biosynthesis and action of androgens eliminates the inappropriate exposure of other tissues to androgens and thus minimizes the risks of undesirable masculinizing or other androgen-related side effects of DHEA.

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Cutaneous
  • Aged
  • Aldosterone / blood
  • Androgens / blood*
  • Androstenedione / blood
  • Dehydroepiandrosterone / administration & dosage*
  • Dehydroepiandrosterone / blood*
  • Dehydroepiandrosterone / pharmacokinetics
  • Dehydroepiandrosterone Sulfate / blood
  • Dihydrotestosterone / blood
  • Estradiol / blood
  • Estrogens / blood*
  • Estrone / blood
  • Fatty Acids / blood
  • Female
  • Glucuronates / blood
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood
  • Liver / metabolism
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Testosterone / blood


  • Androgens
  • Estrogens
  • Fatty Acids
  • Glucuronates
  • Dihydrotestosterone
  • Estrone
  • Testosterone
  • Androstenedione
  • Dehydroepiandrosterone
  • Aldosterone
  • Estradiol
  • Dehydroepiandrosterone Sulfate
  • Hydrocortisone