What is DHEA?
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is oftentimes referred to as the "mother of all hormones" because it fuels the hormone pathway - a term that refers to the body's delicate interplay of hormones. It is also one of the steroid hormones and a precursor to all of the body's sex hormones. Women rely on adequate levels of DHEA to balance other key hormones throughout the body, such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. DHEA in women, like other forms of androgen (such as testosterone), is produced by the adrenal glands. As women age, DHEA levels- like most other hormone levels - begin to decline. However age isn't the only culprit.
Have you ever heard of "the stress hormone," known as cortisol? Well like DHEA, cortisol is also produced by the adrenals, as is adrenaline - two hormones that assist in the body's "fight or flight" response to stress. Although we rely on hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to help prepare the body for stressful situations, chronic stress can cause the adrenal glands to work overtime. While the adrenals are preoccupied with pumping out large quantities of cortisol and adrenaline, they can't produce enough DHEA. The average adult should be producing about 25 mg of DHEA per day, and men of all ages will always produce more DHEA than women.
Why are Healthy DHEA Levels Important for Women?
Low levels of DHEA in women can cause symptoms including:
- Adrenal fatigue - This condition happens when the adrenal glands have to produce so much cortisol that they can't create enough DHEA. This is often exacerbated by high stress, because increased cortisol is needed to promote feelings of calm. The fatigue lends to an overall sense of feeling overwhelmed and can even cultivate depressive symptoms. Overall cognitive function also suffers as a result.
- Weight gain - One of the most common signs of adrenal fatigue. This symptom is also made worse by high levels of stress due to the adrenal glands having to spend more energy to produce cortisol. The abdominal region is the area of the body that is most affected.
- Depression - A serious condition that can result from adrenal fatigue. A number of studies have shown balanced DHEA levels in women to have the ability to improve mood.
- Aching joints - DHEA levels have been found to be low in people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, especially in post-menopausal women.
- Low libido - Since DHEA is a precursor to all of the sex hormones, low DHEA levels in women result in drastic ramifications for their sex drive.
- Decreased bone density - This leads to aching joints and can also contribute to more serious conditions like osteoporosis.
High DHEA can lead to androgen excess and has been associated with a higher risk for breast cancer. It might also be indicative of disease or other larger issues, such as:
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and other forms of androgen deficiency - Women with PCOS often experience infertility and suffer from hair loss, hirsutism)(hair growth in unexpected places like the chin and upper lip), and acne.
- Adrenal tumor(s) or overactive adrenal glands - Overactive adrenal glands can lead to Cushing's syndrome.
- Cushing’s Syndrome: - Also known as hypercortisolism, this syndrome refers to a collection of symptoms that often result from overexposure to cortisol. These symptoms include:
- Weight gain and fatty tissue deposits (especially in the face, around the midsection and upper back, and between the shoulders)
- Thinning skin that is more susceptible to bruising
- Pink/purple stretch marks on the arms, thighs, breasts, and abdomen
- Irregular or absent menstrual periods
- Slow healing of cuts and infections
On the other hand, adequate DHEA levels (determined and monitored by an expert in hormone replacement therapy) can help women:
- Boost libido - Since DHEA is a precursor to sex hormones, healthy levels will promote overall sexual wellness.
- Rebuild lean muscle mass - This is essential in shedding excess weight and improving the Body Mass Index (BMI).
- Lose weight - Due to the direct relationship with cortisol and fatty deposits, weight gain can result from both high AND low cortisol levels.
- Improve memory and overall cognitive function - Many studies point to a connection between DHEA-S blood levels and cognition.
- Boost the immune system - DHEA, especially 7-keto DHEA, has shown the ability to support the immune system and boost the production of white blood cells (specifically neutrohpils).
- Improve bone mineral density - By improving bone density, DHEA improves overall flexibility and reduces the chances of breaks, fractures, and osteoporosis.
- Raise energy levels - When DHEA doesn't have to combat stress by overproducing cortisol, overall energy levels improve. This can prevent or reverse adrenal fatigue. While DHEA supplements and prescriptions can help balance DHEA levels, this can also be achieved with stress reduction techniques.
What should you do if you Need DHEA?
If you suspect that the symptoms you're experiencing may translate into a DHEA imbalance, hormone testing is available to determine where you and your levels stand. With the "mother load" of benefits associated with DHEA, it is definitely worth seeing a bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (BHRT) practitioner for a full hormone level assessment. Whatever combination of blood, serum, and urine level testing you end up going through, it would be best done with a medical professional dedicated to BHRT.
Since DHEA is a precursor to the sex hormones, adding more to the body without throwing the other hormone levels out of whack can be tricky. That is why it is crucial to only participate in DHEA replacement therapy under the supervision of a BHRT specialist, and that also goes for taking non-prescription DHEA supplements. With such a delicate relationship existing between the various sex hormones, why take any chances with generic, synthetic supplements that weren’t even made for you? BodyLogicMD-affiliated hormone experts only use hormones that are biologically identical to the hormones in your body and have been made-to-order specifically for YOU based on your hormone level evaluation. To embark on improving your DHEA levels, contact your local BodyLogicMD-affiliated practitioner today!