Dehydroepiandrosterone, commonly known as DHEA, is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands, which are located on top of your kidneys. It plays a crucial role in various bodily functions, including sexual development and mood regulation. Unsurprisingly, imbalances in DHEA levels can have significant impacts on health and quality of life. Let’s discuss further how to treat low DHEA levels as well as some common causes and symptoms.
DHEA is actually not a hormone on its own, but a steroid hormone precursor. Among other things, it serves as an intermediate for male and female sex hormones, including testosterone and estrogen. It is produced in the adrenal glands, the gonads, and the brain. DHEA levels are partially responsible for the physical effects of puberty, such as body hair and increased oil production. DHEA levels are, therefore, at their peak during early adulthood (age 20-25) and gradually decline with age.
In addition to acting as a precursor to androgen hormones, DHEA has other important functions within the body, including:
Studies have shown a positive correlation between lower-than-normal levels of DHEA and the prevalence of osteoporosis. DHEA replacement therapy may also help alleviate pain related to osteoarthritis.
As we age, our DHEA levels decline, and so does our ability to fight disease. This is known as “immunosenescence,” and it is why certain diseases are more risky for very young children and senior citizens.
The fact that DHEA levels decrease at the same time as our immunity is probably not coincidental. In fact, studies are investigating the use of DHEA supplementation as an effective means of combating immunosenescence.
DHEA acts on certain receptors in the brain. It effectively blocks calcium ion channels, which can have a mood stabilizing effect. There are actually drugs specifically designed to do this in patients with bipolar who do not tolerate traditional therapies. DHEA may be yet another alternative therapy in the treatment and regulation of certain mental health disorders.
Just as with certain other hormones, the decline in DHEA levels as we age is normal. However, lower than average amounts can lead to uncomfortable side effects. These include:
You may be wondering if there are any other causes (besides age) of low DHEA levels. There are, in fact, a handful of underlying conditions that can cause a drop in DHEA sulfate in the blood:
Conditions such as adrenal insufficiency and Addison’s disease affect the adrenal gland’s ability to produce hormones and hormone precursors, including DHEA. This could lead to low levels of it in the blood.
A study found that younger individuals reporting prolonged periods of stress also had lower blood levels of DHEA. According to the research, low DHEA in people below age 35 may be attributed to “clinical burnout,” which is defined as emotional exhaustion, cognitive weariness, and physical fatigue related to high stress levels.
Problems with the pituitary gland, such as hypopituitarism, may also result in low DHEA.
Long-term use of oral glucocorticoid medications (such as prednisone) suppresses adrenal function. This can result in low DHEA and other adrenal hormones, like cortisol.
The approach to managing low DHEA levels depends on the underlying cause. Treatment options typically include one or a combination of the following:
In cases where adrenal disorders are the cause, medication may be recommended to help mitigate symptoms long-term.
If chronic stress is suspected as an underlying cause, your provider may recommend certain lifestyle changes and relaxation techniques, such as meditation or breathing exercises.
In certain situations, hormone replacement therapy may be considered to balance DHEA levels, especially in individuals experiencing other symptoms related to hormonal imbalances or for those with hypopituitarism.
The United States is the only country in the world that allows the sale of DHEA supplements without a prescription. This, in itself, is a red flag. Additional concerns with over-the-counter (OTC) DHEA lie in the fact that supplements in the US are not subject to any regulation by the FDA. This means the quality and safety of OTC DHEA can vary significantly from brand to brand.
Furthermore, we have seen the dramatic impact low levels of DHEA can have on vital functions within the body. Self-guided supplementation may result in levels that become too high, which presents its own set of symptoms.
It is, therefore, strongly recommended that you consult with a functional medical provider to discuss symptoms you may be experiencing. He or she will help you find the root cause of your symptoms and develop a treatment plan that includes close monitoring of blood levels and side effects.
As Omaha’s top BHRT provider, Balanced Body Health & Wellness is dedicated to restoring women’s health through a holistic approach. We treat you, not just your symptoms. Through a combined effort of hormone health, balanced diet, lifestyle changes, medication, and other resources, we can offer a plan that is tailored to your unique goals. Go online today to schedule your free fifteen minute Discovery Call to see how we can help you.