When you think of hormones, DHEA probably doesn’t come to mind. You may not even have heard of it before, which is crazy given how important it is to every function in our bodies.
Estrogen and cortisol may be more well known, but DHEA is the unsung hero of the group, the hormone that other hormones need in order to do their own jobs. Like the mother of this big hormonal family, DHEA not only has its own functions when it comes to your health (ahem – anti aging), but its biggest job is helping to produce – and keep in line – other hormones including estrogen and testosterone.
So, to stick with the mom metaphor, when DHEA is unhappy (well, unbalanced), nobody’s happy – or rather, your other hormones can also go a little haywire causing a health domino effect.
DHEA Benefits: What Makes This Hormone So Special?
DHEA is predominantly produced in the adrenal glands which are located directly on top of each kidney. Levels of DHEA typically peak in early adulthood, around the early twenties, and then gradually decline as you age. According to research from Mount Sinai, by the time people are between the ages of 70 and 80, their “DHEA levels are only 10% to 20%” of those in young adults.
At its basic level, DHEA is a precursor hormone, meaning it is used to build other hormones, and it is an androgen, or male sex hormone. But its work and influence on the body goes far beyond those titles.
DHEA Might Just Be an Anti-Aging Superhero
DHEA is the body’s most potent healthy aging hormone. More research still needs to be done in this area, but it might not be a coincidence that DHEA naturally and dramatically decreases with age (as does estrogen, which DHEA helps to make) just as signs of aging like wrinkles increase.
Because there is such a strong correlation between a drop in DHEA and aging, it’s theorized that taking a DHEA supplement could potentially help minimize signs and side effects of aging. While more research is being done, it is worth keeping an eye on your DHEA levels given that this hormone is responsible for keeping your skin moisturized, your bones strong, and your cortisol in check, all things that can lead to increased signs of aging.
Feeling Down? Don’t Overlook Your DHEA
Low levels of DHEA have been correlated with depression. While the exact nature of the relationship is still being researched, there does seem to be a link between the two, especially in middle age (remember DHEA declines rapidly as you age).
While DHEA levels are not commonly tested in those experiencing depression, there have been studies that have shown a decrease in depressive symptoms after supplementing with DHEA. The National Institute of Mental Health studied 46 patients between the ages of 40 and 65 who experienced both major and minor depression. After six weeks of supplementing with DHEA, “23 patients showed a 50% decrease in depressive symptoms. Ten patients chose to continue taking DHEA for one year at a low dose and remained free of depression,” as reported by Psychology Today.
Like many aspects of DHEA, how it influences mental health is not entirely understood yet and rebalancing the hormone through DHEA supplements is not a magic cure on its own (especially if your DHEA levels aren’t low to begin with). But if you struggle with depression, it’s worth mentioning to your doctor and having your hormone levels tested.
Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby
This is where DHEA’s position as a sex hormone really shines. Just as there’s no salad without lettuce, the body can’t make other sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone without DHEA.
Considering it’s a precursor to the sex hormones, it makes sense that when DHEA for women is balanced it keeps your libido humming along. More research is needed, but the hormone’s effects on libido look especially promising in post-menopausal women. Some research has found that it improves “vaginal atrophy” (a terrible name for dryness caused by a drop in estrogen) in postmenopausal women. Another study showed that oral DHEA supplements increased libido, sexual activity, and satisfaction in postmenopausal women.
DHEA and Stress: A Codependent Relationship
DHEA and cortisol are like siblings, both produced in the adrenal glands. If DHEA is the reliable older sister, cortisol is the wilder baby of the family. The two exist in a relationship in which the older sibling keeps the naughty behavior of the younger in check – aka if cortisol starts spiking, DHEA steps in to calm it down. But when DHEA levels are lower than cortisol, the harmonious ratio between the two is disrupted and the body becomes more vulnerable to the effects of unchecked stress.
When you have high cortisol and low DHEA, you may not be able to think as clearly and you may also see skin aging and inflammation. This is because, during periods of high stress, the body stops the cycle of shedding dead skin cells which can cause a host of issues ranging from acne to dryness or premature aging. Studies also indicate higher levels of cortisol paired with DHEA deficiency may be linked to metabolic syndrome, which can increase the risk of certain health issues including cardiovascular problems, stroke, and diabetes.
If your DHEA is too high, that’s not ideal either. High DHEA can cause increased testosterone and estrogen in the body, which may contribute to worse PMS symptoms, irregular or painful periods, and other conditions like PCOS. The key to keeping this hormonal family happy lies in the balance.
How to Keep DHEA Balanced
The first step to solving any health issue is to collect information. If you think your DHEA may be causing problems, take an at-home hormone test or ask your doctor to order lab testing to determine if your DHEA levels are in fact unbalanced. If your DHEA does need a little extra TLC, some things you can do to support your body’s production are:
Take a DHEA supplement: If your hormone test shows that your body needs a little extra support, think about adding a supplement to your routine. One important thing to look for when choosing a supplement is where the DHEA is sourced. For example, Veracity’s Vital DHEA Stability supplement is made from only 100% pure DHEA derived from wild yams.
Prioritize sleep: If your DHEA is low and cortisol has taken over the show, you need to rest up. When stress is too high for too long, you can go into adrenal fatigue in which your adrenals struggle to produce hormones. Getting back to a balanced, well-rested state will not only help you control your stress, but it will support the appropriate production of DHEA. Try to get at least a solid 8 hours of sleep a night and go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
Balance your blood sugar: Stable blood sugar helps to reduce cortisol which returns the DHEA-to-cortisol ratio to a more comfortable level. Insulin is most efficient earlier in the day, so make breakfast and lunch your biggest meals or break your meals into 4-6 smaller portions throughout the day. You’ll also want to incorporate a healthy amount of fiber and protein into your diet and satisfy your sugar and carb cravings with vegetables, whole grains, and fruit rather than the breadbasket and dessert.
Bask in the sun (with moderation): Generally, heading out into the light without sunscreen is not advised. But given that sun exposure produces vitamin D, and vitamin D supports the healthy production of DHEA, a moderate 30 minutes a day out in the sun with bare arms is a good way to help kickstart low DHEA.
Gentle movement and exercise: Intense physical activity boosts DHEA and cortisol, so if your DHEA is imbalanced regardless of if it’s too high or too low, you should avoid high intensity workouts that might make the problem worse. Instead, focus on movement that is gentle and rejuvenating like long, leisurely walks, yoga, or pilates.
Watch your cholesterol (for high DHEA):Just as DHEA is the building block for estrogen and testosterone, cholesterol is one of the building blocks for DHEA. If your DHEA is too high, avoid high cholesterol foods like eggs, red meat, and fried foods that can eventually result in even more DHEA production.
DHEA may not be winning the hormone popularity contest anytime soon, but understanding all the work it’s doing in your body and taking steps in your daily life to support its production and balance can make a huge difference to your health. Remember: when DHEA is happy, everybody’s happy.