Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is the principal human C-19 steroid. DHEA has very low androgenic potency, but serves as the major direct or indirect precursor for most sex-steroids. DHEA is secreted by the adrenal gland and production is at least partly controlled by adrenocorticotropic hormone. The bulk of DHEA is secreted as a 3-sulfoconjugate (DHEA-S). Both hormones are albumin bound, but binding of DHEA-S is much tighter. In gonads and several other tissues, most notably skin, steroid sulfatases can convert DHEA-S back to DHEA, which can then be metabolized to stronger androgens and to estrogens.
Elevated DHEA-S levels can cause symptoms or signs of hyperandrogenism in women. Men are usually asymptomatic, but through peripheral conversion of androgens to estrogens can occasionally experience mild estrogen excess. Most mild to moderate elevations in DHEA-S levels are idiopathic. However, pronounced elevations of DHEA-S may be indicative of androgen-producing adrenal tumors. In small children, congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) due to 3 beta-hydroxysteroid deficiency is associated with excessive DHEA-S production. Lesser elevations may be observed in 21-hydroxylase deficiency (the most common form of CAH) and 11 beta-hydroxylase deficiency. By contrast, steroidogenic acute regulatory protein or 17 alpha-hydroxylase deficiencies are characterized by low DHEA-S levels.
Elevated dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEA-S) levels indicate increased adrenal androgen production. Mild elevations in adults are usually idiopathic, but levels of 600 mcg/dL or more can suggest the presence of an androgen-secreting adrenal tumor. DHEA-S levels are elevated in more than 90% of patients with such tumors, usually well above 600 mcg/dL. This is particularly true for androgen-secreting adrenal carcinomas, as they have typically lost the ability to produce down-stream androgens, such as testosterone. By contrast, androgen-secreting adrenal adenomas may also produce excess testosterone and secrete lesser amounts of DHEA-S.
Patients with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) may show very high levels of DHEA-S, often 5- to 10-fold elevations. However, with the possible exception of 3 beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase deficiency, other steroid analytes offer better diagnostic accuracy than DHEA-S measurements. Consequently, DHEA-S testing should not be used as the primary tool for CAH diagnosis. Similarly, discovering a high DHEA-S level in an infant or child with symptoms or signs of possible CAH should prompt additional testing, as should the discovery of very high DHEA-S levels in an adult. In the latter case, adrenal tumors need to be excluded and additional adrenal steroid profile testing may assist in diagnosing nonclassical CAH.
Many drugs and hormones can result in changes in DHEA-S levels. Whether any of these secondary changes in DHEA-S levels are of clinical significance and how they should be related to the established normal reference ranges is unknown. In most cases, the drug-induced changes are not large enough to cause diagnostic confusion, but when interpreting mild abnormalities in DHEA-S levels, drug and hormone interactions should be taken into account.
DECREASED DHEA-S levels include: insulin, oral contraceptive drugs, corticosteroids, central nervous system agents that induce hepatic enzymes (eg, carbamazepine, clomipramine, imipramine, phenytoin), many antilipemic drugs (eg, statins, cholestyramine), domapinergic drugs (eg, levodopa/dopamine, bromocryptine), fish oil, and vitamin E.
Drugs that may increase DHEA-S levels include: metformin, troglitazone, prolactin, (and by indirect implication many neuroleptic drugs), danazol, calcium channel blockers (eg, diltiazem, amlodipine), and nicotine and polycystic ovarian diseae
DHEA-S therapy is its associated hyperandrogenic effects. These are particularly likely to occur in postmenopausal females if DHEA-S levels approach or exceed the upper reference range This includes facial hair and acne. Most supplements contain dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), but the in vivo conversion to DHEA-S allows monitoring of either DHEA or DHEA-S.