I have a bone to pick with manufacturers of DHEA supplements and pretty much anyone who goes around “willy nilly” recommending anyone and everyone to supplement DHEA on the guise that its production in the body somehow declines as we age. Every hormone has the propensity to decline as we age however this decline is rather dependent on the type of lifestyle rather than simply age. The fact is, there are people in their teens and twenties that lead incredibly stressful lives and manufacture precious little DHEA in comparison either in ratio to cortisol production or with low cortisol production. There are those well into late life who manufacture just enough. The fact is, DHEA production has everything to do with the stressful lives we lead and the consistent prevalence of adrenal fatigue in our society.
What’s DHEA anyway?
DHEA or dehydroepiandrosterone is a hormone primarily made by the adrenal glands. It is, if you will, an antagonist (or counterbalance) to cortisol. It is a precursor to both male and female sex hormones, such as testosterone, progesterone, and estrogen. It controls the immune system, is a factor in blood sugar regulation, healing, growth, and is a powerful mood regulator.
Problems of low DHEA are less to do with actual age than the fact that we lead much more stressful lives these days and allow adrenal fatigue to go unchecked which leads to thyroid dysfunction and hormonal imbalance. As adrenal fatigue progresses from Stage 1 Adrenal Fatigue (which is high cortisol levels and normal DHEA levels) to Stage 2 cortisol levels return to normal but DHEA levels start to lower as the failing adrenals start to steal some DHEA and Pregenelone (the other hormone produced by cholesterol and a precursor to vital sex hormones) to manufacture cortisol. Because DHEA is so vital for healthy immunity, this imbalance leads to infections and immune problems, auto-immune diseases, low libido, and can exacerbate or even cause symptoms of menopause (headaches, hot flashes, insomnia, and irritability. Men can even experience these symptoms as andropause.
If you are lucky enough to get the right testing done, you might actually see these results, but at Stage 2 many of the traditional medical tests still consider these low levels “sub-clinical” and apply a “watch and wait” philosophy whereas this is where I, in my practice, look seriously at nutrition and specific adaptogens as a course of treatment but rarely do I prescribe DHEA unless I suspect the levels are so low such supplementation is necessary. This, of course, is where people “self diagnose” and start to treat themselves with handfuls of supplements.
To give you an example of why this is not a good idea, one client, a long time ago, decided to treat herself with DHEA after reading that it was a wonder supplement meant to boost fertility and keep you young forever. (Her words, not mine.) Within three months, her adrenal symptoms had not dissipated because her estrogen became so high she had a rip roaring case of estrogen dominance which had caused an even more pronounced OAT Axis Imbalance. This is what happens when you try to take a single pronged approach to a multi-pronged issue. It should be used as a cautionary tale.
The importance of DHEA cannot be denied, of course. If cortisol levels are high, for instance, and DHEA levels are low, even glucose utilization and insulin function are significantly altered, even impaired, leading to being a factor of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. Sodium/fluid imbalances occur and the body retains water. This leads to high blood pressure. The blood sugar issue causes high triglycerides which dramatically increases the incidence of heart disease. The list of the issues of having low DHEA goes on to include memory impairment, reduced REM sleep and reduce growth hormone release which diminishes physical and mental rejuvenation, impaired protein synthesis leading to muscle wasting, bone loss and accelerated aging, and even arthritis.
Supplementation of DHEA haphazardly is not the answer. Under the care of aDHEA supplements can be an integral part of a holistic healing program, however, merely supplementing DHEA without supervision can be downright dangerous as symptoms of chronic and prolonged overuse include nausea, headaches, acne, liver tumors, atherosclerosis, prostate cancer, cervical cancer, breast cancer, male breast growth, uterine fibroids and polyps, endometriosis, cystic breasts and ovaries, male pattern hair growth in women, spotting, and breast tenderness. It can cause the adrenal glands to atrophy and those on thyroid replacement therapy may actually become hyperthyroid as the DHEA makes the medication more active.
I cannot stress this enough that to truly treat low levels of DHEA means treating the root of the causes of chronic stress. It means learning stress relief techniques, eating a healthy diet and reducing other types of physical stress such as chronic inflammation whether apparent, as in the case of arthritis, or hidden through years of poor nutrition, can help restore cortisol levels to normal which, in turn, will help DHEA levels to normalize as well. Even if one has seemingly no emotional stress, physical stress such as a bacterial infestation or infection in the stomach can cause cortisol levels to rise and DHEA levels to fall due to chronic immune responses. One such trigger, incidentally, is grain such as wheat, rye, oats, quinoa, soy, and amaranth. Eliminating grain from the diet, or at least minimizing it can go a long way to treating adrenal or other endocrine related symptoms.
Again, it is too easy to grab DHEA off the shelf and start taking it as a “cure all”. It should be prescribed by a health care provider or certified holistic nutritionist.
To fine-tune your eating, specific to you, your particular health struggles and metabolic needs,to enquire about a private consultation; either in person in the Middle East, on certain dates in my travel schedule, or long distance via Skype.