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Hormone balance is delicate. It is like a symphony – it needs the right mix of all the players. In this case we are going to talk about DHEA and its benefits in helping the adrenal glands combat the symptoms of fatigue and exhaustion.

DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone) is a hormone with a lot of press. If used right, it can aid in balancing our internal harmonic symphony of hormones and maximize our feeling of wellbeing. But, be careful as supplement manufacturers hype it as a magic cure-all for many things and the very real benefits of DHEA, particularly for women, are getting lost in all the controversy.

The truth is, for the women who need it, adrenal support with DHEA supplementation can make a big difference. It has helped patients get going again when they feel like they’ve hit rock bottom. But it’s never as simple as just popping a pill. When used appropriately (in a therapeutic setting under medical supervision) DHEA is a critical component to jumpstarting hormonal balance.

How DHEA Helped a 30-year-old Mom

Two months ago, Shannon, a 30-year-old mom, came to see me. She was so worn out from mothering four kids and working full-time she couldn’t keep going. Just driving to our practice took everything she had. Her tests revealed severe adrenal imbalance and, as so often occurs in these cases, very low levels of an important hormone called DHEA. After two months of treatment that included lifestyle changes and adrenal support with low daily doses of DHEA, she feels like herself again.

Many women are overwhelmed with life. DHEA is a natural steroid and precursor hormone that plays a big role in the health of the adrenals. DHEA has a big role in hormonal balance. You should talk to your healthcare professional and make the best choice for your individual needs.

What is DHEA?

DHEA is the most abundant circulating steroid hormone in humans. It is produced mainly in the adrenal glands, the female ovaries and male testis, and the brain, where it functions predominantly as a metabolic intermediate in the formation of the androgen and estrogen sex steroids.

DHEA is a steroid hormone synthesized from cholesterol. Believe it or not, cholesterol is at the top of the food chain in making all of our sex steroids. The average adult makes about 25 mg of DHEA per day (some more, some less). Men at all ages have more DHEA than women.

DHEA production declines as we age.

Natural DHEA production is at its highest in your twenties. By the time we reach our sixties we only make about 20% of the DHEA we had when we were young. A decline in DHEA with the passage of time is clearly what nature intended — and as far as we know, a healthy process.

Because levels naturally decline, this is only one of the major reasons we don’t recommend self-prescribing DHEA through over-the-counter products. These levels can elevate too quickly and some individual systems can become symptomatic in a negative way from excessive amounts of DHEA.

How does DHEA relate to stress?

Besides DHEA, your adrenals also make the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Adrenal exhaustion can come from coping with chronic stress, it can be caused by (among other things) poor nutrition, yo-yo dieting, emotional turmoil, and job-related stress.

Adrenal fatigue is not really recognized as a syndrome or disease in the medical community, but it is a real deal if you are the patient. Adrenal fatigue means your adrenals are bone-tired from pumping out cortisol and they simply can’t manufacture enough DHEA or progesterone to support a healthy hormonal balance. What is the end result? You feel tapped out, overwhelmed and, often, depressed.

When we balance DHEA and cortisol levels in the body, brain function and mood improve. It’s likely that DHEA and adrenal function are directly related to neurotransmitter-release rates, based on the mood elevation our patients report after just two weeks of adrenal support. But more clinical research is needed to isolate the individual effects of DHEA from the hormones it gets metabolized into before we can know for sure what part it plays in all of this.

DHEA is a “feel-good” hormone.

One thing we do know is that adequate levels of DHEA are needed to ensure your body can produce the hormones it needs when it needs them. In that balanced state your mood is stable and you feel clear-headed, joyful and vigorous. DHEA is the best “feel-good” hormone we know. And it works quickly and effectively when taken with the right combination of support.

When DHEA levels are low, your body does not have enough working material for proper endocrine function. This throws off your hormone production and you feel a general sense of malaise, along with other symptoms of hormonal imbalance — how severe depends on how many other demands are being made on your body at the same time.

There is a growing body of evidence that healthy levels of DHEA may help support the bones, fight depression, fatigue, and aid in weight loss, but there is still no clear cut consensus. All the more reason to take DHEA under medical supervision.

DHEA Supplementation

Your lifestyle, diet and stress levels all contribute to the amount of DHEA your body can produce in a given period. At our practice we look at adrenal function, using DHEA levels as one of several diagnostic tools. We really focus on lifestyle. If the way we live is killing us (poor nutrition, no rest, no exercise and all stress), we will not achieve balance with DHEA alone. We have to have a solid and clean foundation.

Most of the women (men too) we see at our practice — and I mean 99% — have some indication of adrenal imbalance, including symptoms of low DHEA levels, such as:

  • depression, extreme fatigue
  • decrease in muscle mass
  • decrease in bone density
  • aching joints
  • loss of libido
  • lowered immunity

But simply adding more DHEA to the equation is not the answer, despite what some of the popular products claim. DHEA alone can’t fix adrenal imbalance (don’t believe any product that says it will!), but it can be an important factor in a combination approach that includes hormonal and nutritional support, lifestyle changes, and proper rest.

It’s a delicate hormonal balance that makes the difference.

You can’t look to DHEA supplementation as a stand-alone solution. It just doesn’t work that way. DHEA is one part of the whole concert of hormones at work every moment in your body. Before you tinker with that balance, it’s a good idea to understand what is going on in your life on all levels — physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.

Even though we’ve been trained in our culture to expect a one-size-fits-all drug cure for every health issue, ingesting a powerful hormone like DHEA can be unpredictable and in some cases, risky. That’s why we advise our patients not to self-medicate.

The Trouble with Over-the-Counter DHEA Supplements

You can buy DHEA over-the-counter in a confusing variety of doses and combinations. Most of these DHEA products are geared toward men. The delicate systems of women seem to be left out. Female dosing is much gentler and dosing is much lower to start and often times it takes a slow titration to optimal levels.

The labels claim DHEA will help us lose weight, renew your libido, lift depression and give us back the strength, immunity, and stamina we had when we were 20 — the age at which our bodies naturally produced the most DHEA. While on the surface this is appealing, it’s obviously not a factual reality. We also don’t know enough about DHEA to be conducting such a large, regulated randomized clinical trial. DHEA is a potent steroid which is why it’s been in the headlines and why it should be approached with due diligence.

Without a comprehensive medical test it’s impossible to know what your DHEA levels are. Just because you’re getting older doesn’t automatically mean you’re deficient. Remember, this is a natural substance — our bodies can produce more or less of it depending on our nutrient support, metabolism, hormonal balance, activity level and emotional state.

Bottom line, any time you buy a supplement at a health food store, you have no guarantee that what you are buying is the real deal. What is on the label is not always in the bottle. Ensure you are getting pharmaceutical grade product and the right potency.

The Right Approach to Improving DHEA Levels

There are many studies that show you can improve your DHEA levels naturally by maintaining a body composition in a healthy range, getting adequate rest, appropriate exposure to sunlight, exercising regularly, and fostering more “downtime” in your life . Again we stress evaluation of your lifestyle. A clean machine greases the wheels by itself, in the appropriate amounts without addition from supplementation

Also remember that taking DHEA alone won’t do any good if your adrenals are exhausted. There are too many other factors at work. You need to know the status of your adrenal function and your other hormones before you can even begin to know what kind of combination of support your body needs.

That being said, if you’ve been taking a DHEA enhanced product — don’t worry! Just call your doctor or medical practitioner and ask to get your hormones tested — then you will know how to proceed.