10 Important Roles of DHEA In Your Body
When we talk about stress and the stress response in the body, we often focus our attention on cortisol levels (we even call it “the stress hormone”). While the importance of cortisol cannot be understated during a stress response, as it is a major hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress, another equally important hormone, DHEA, is often overlooked.
DHEA stands for dehydroepiandrosterone.. so let’s just keep calling it DHEA. It exists in two forms in the body – DHEA and DHEA-S (S for sulfated, a metabolite of DHEA) – both forms are hormones secreted by the adrenal cortex in response to the pituitary production of ACTH (as during a stress response). Many patients who have been through IVF may identify with DHEA as one of the hormones they’re prescribed during preparation for their cycle, but most don’t actually know what DHEA is or what its many roles are in the body.
DHEA-S is the most abundant circulating steroid hormone in humans. It is also the most abundant product of the adrenal glands – recently, it has garnered some attention in the literature. When we start to break down all the roles that DHEA has in the body, it’s not hard to see why it has grabbed our attention.
1. Low levels of DHEA and DHEA-S have been associated with aging. For example, in this study DHEA-S levels were lower in nursing home patients who required total care when compared to individuals who could care for themselves.
2. Low DHEA-S has been associated with coronary artery blockage (called “stenosis”) in men.
3. While the relationship between aging and DHEA is not yet known, DHEA levels have been postulated to be a marker for age-related chronic conditions.
4. Levels of DHEA and DHEA-S have shown a connection to the incidence of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS).
5. DHEA-S levels have also been shown to be associated with depression.
6. It has been speculated that low levels of DHEA in menopausal women are associated with vaginal atrophy, fat accumulation, hot flashes, type 2 diabetes, memory loss and cognitive trouble.
7. It plays an important role in the functioning of the immune system – modulating immune markers like T cells and natural killer (NK) cells.
8. Adequate DHEA is associated with physical and psychological well-being, muscle strength and bone density; it also reduces body fat and age-related skin thinning (think wrinkles).
9. In a double blind study, DHEA supplementation induced remission in the majority of patients with inflammatory bowel disease.
10. In women who respond poorly to IVF and have poor ovarian reserve, administration of DHEA results in an improvement in oocyte yield, embryo quality and live birth rate.
One of the more important roles of DHEA in our bodies is its role as a precursor to the sex hormones, estrogen and testosterone. Without adequate DHEA, the production of estrogen and testosterone falls in men and women, which can lead to accelerated aging and premature infertility.
When we evaluate the adrenal glands for their stress response, we’re also always running a DHEA-S value. A reliable way to test DHEA-S is in the saliva, due to its abundance in the system and long half-life. It does not have a diurnal (changing daily) pattern like cortisol or DHEA. Used in combination with the cortisol rhythm, DHEA can tell us a great deal about what’s going on with the adrenal glands.
We have found that supplementing with low, physiological doses of DHEA in patients whose levels are reduced helps to support the regulation of the stress response, and can allow the body to properly balance estrogen, progesterone and testosterone sex hormones in men and women. It modulates inflammation and an overactive immune system response, and has shown clinically to be of great value for many patients trying to conceive. We’re doing this at Acubalance in a safe and controlled way; myself, Dr. Lorne Brown and our functional medicine MD are working together to safely administer low physiological doses of this important hormone.
If you’re curious about what DHEA can do for you, have a look at what the Mayo Clinic has to say on the many benefits, and bring it up to your Acubalance practitioner at your next appointment.
Dr. Kali MacIsaac HBSc, ND