Physiology 101

DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone) is one of three major cholesterol-based hormones produced by your adrenal glands (the other two being aldosterone, and cortisol.) DHEA is a precursor hormone for estrogen and testosterone in both men and women.

Aside from its role as a parent hormone, DHEA also counters the effects of too-high cortisol. While enough cortisol is necessary to maintain your energy and to counterbalance adrenaline, too much is a problem. 

  • High cortisol encourages weight gain and metabolic syndrome by increasing blood sugar and inhibiting conversion of inactive to active thyroid hormone. DHEA encourages a faster metabolism.
  • While cortisol suppresses the immune system (and inflammation), DHEA supports it. It can be very helpful in modulating autoimmunity and allergies.
  • While cortisol “breaks down,” thinning the skin, breaking down bones and speeding aging, DHEA “builds up,” protecting against these deleterious effects.

For these reasons, DHEA has been considered an anti-aging hormone.

DHEA Deficiency: In a Competition against DHEA, Cortisol Wins

Of the adrenal hormones, cortisol is the most important. Too much is a problem, but too little is disaster. If the body has to choose which to make, it’ll pick cortisol every time. As we age, this happens naturally; in our 70s we only produce about 5% as much DHEA as we produced at twenty. This may partly explain why one hallmark of aging involves using up the body’s resources without building them back up again. 

You may also favor cortisol, leading to a deficiency in DHEA, if you’re adrenal fatigued. Because DHEA is the parent hormone for estrogen and testosterone, sufficient quantities are necessary for hormone balancing. This is one reason why women who are adrenal fatigued have such a hard time both with PMS and in menopause.

Test Your DHEA Before You Supplement!

Because DHEA is a natural substance, it is unregulated by the FDA. It’s available over the counter, but be careful with taking any hormones without having your levels checked first. For women, too much DHEA typically results in an overabundance of testosterone, which can lead to abnormal hair growth, acne, and irritability. It’s also possible for DHEA to convert primarily to estrogen in some women, leading to estrogen dominance symptoms such as mood swings, water retention, and breast tenderness. Men who take more DHEA than necessary will most likely find that most of it converts to estrogen. 

It’s important to know where your DHEA is at to begin with, and to dose only as much as you need.

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