What Is the Difference Between OTC DHEA & Prescription DHEA?

Fact Checked

iFogStock/FogStock Collection/FogStock/Getty Images

"DHEA" stands for "dehydroepiandrosterone." It is a hormone made by your body and secreted by your adrenal gland. It’s used to boost athletic performance, slow signs of aging, treat systemic lupus erythematosus, for weight loss and a host of other purposes. The Mayo Clinic recommends medical supervision if you use DHEA because it can cause elevated levels of estrogens and androgens in your body.


DHEA is available by prescription only in most other countries, but in the United States it is sold as an herbal supplement. DHEA is being investigated and may one day be approved as a prescription drug by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treating systemic lupus erythematosus and for improving bone density in women who suffer lupus and take steroid drugs, according to MedlinePlus. As of 2011, the FDA is still evaluating the pharmaceutical company’s application for such uses.


The FDA strictly regulates prescription and over-the-counter medications, and companies must gain FDA approval before marketing them for use in the United States. The FDA has different rules for supplements, however. With supplements, a manufacturer is responsible for making sure its supplement is safe before selling it. The FDA takes action against unsafe dietary supplement products after they reach the market. Manufacturers don’t register products with FDA, nor do they need to gain FDA approval before producing or selling supplements. Like with many dietary supplements, there are quality control problems with DHEA, according to MedlinePlus. In some products labeled as containing DHEA, no DHEA has been found in them at all. Other products contain more than the amount stated on the label. Also, while DHEA can be created in a laboratory with wild yam extract, your body cannot synthesize DHEA from yam when you take a wild yam supplement. Therefore, wild yam supplements marketed as "natural DHEA" are misleading, according to MedlinePlus.


The FDA banned DHEA in 1985 for its unproven safety and effectiveness. The 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act had the effect of removing this ban. DHEA supplements appeared on the market soon thereafter. DHEA, whether in prescription from from another country or supplement form from the United States, still is banned for use by many athletic organizations, including the National Basketball Association, the National Football League and the National Collegiate Athletic Association. It is disallowed because there’s concern that its effects may resemble those of anabolic, or muscle-building, steroids.


MedlinePlus rates DHEA as possibly effective for improving symptoms of lupus, weak bones, some types of erectile dysfunction, appearance of skin in older adults and schizophrenia. Mayo Clinic warns that long-term studies on the effects of DHEA have not been conducted. Since DHEA use can lead to higher than normal levels of estrogens and androgens in your body, it theoretically increases risk for hormone-sensitive cancers like ovarian, prostate and breast.