“A past clouded in controversy and bold claims”. I was struck by this phrase when reading the abstract of a recent study on DHEA.
Of course, I know that the hormone DHEA does have a past (and even a present) mired in confusing research and hyperbolic headlines. But reading those words in a medical journal on osteoporosis– where the language is usually pretty reserved– drove it home even more.
The abstract I was reading went on to briefly recap the history of DHEA. How it was once thought to be a “wonder drug” and a “fountain of youth”, how it was banned by the FDA in the 80s because of a lack of research, and how it was revived and allowed to be sold again in the 90s (under new legislation). Now, the paper went on, we’re seeing encouraging research on DHEA and the various conditions it might benefit.
Finally! I’ve been using DHEA in my practice for years. Not as a “miracle drug”, and not for everyone, and not over the long term. But what I’ve seen through both recent research and my experience with women is that there are many benefits of DHEA– when it’s used properly, at the right time, and in the right way.
Let’s take a closer look at what DHEA is, some of the primary benefits of DHEA that can be gained from short term treatment, and how to know if it’s right for you.
Finding a Balance DHEA?
There have been so many sensational headlines about DHEA – good, bad, and ugly! Research has shown some conflicting results, and it’s hard to sort out reality from all the hype.
When some headlines spotlight athletes who are in trouble for taking DHEA, and others tout it as a cure-all, the truth of the matter can too easily get lost in the shuffle. Lack of understanding leads to cynicism, and lack of the “magic” results you were promised leads to disillusionment.
Here’s what I think: DHEA is a fantastic way to help women feel better when they really need it. But it’s not going to make health problems magically disappear — no medication or supplement will! Feeling good long term takes hard work and attention to a healthy lifestyle.
DHEA is a much-needed boost to some women’s bodies, to prepare them to be able to tackle that hard work.
Think of it like this: If your car is leaking oil, of course you need to get it to a mechanic to find where the real problem is. But if the oil runs dry, the engine will die, and the root cause won’t matter anymore. So you add a little oil to get you where you need to be. It’s not a long term solution, and neither is DHEA!
As with just about everything else when it comes to your hormones and your overall health, it really all comes down to balance.
What is DHEA?
So what is DHEA, anyways?
DHEA is a natural steroid hormone. Synthesized from cholesterol and secreted by your adrenal glands, DHEA has many important responsibilities that keep your body functioning well.
A healthy body produces around 25 mg of DHEA per day, although of course that amount can vary. Men have naturally higher amounts of DHEA than women.
When you are in your twenties, DHEA production reaches its peak. As you age, production decreases – and most of the time, that’s okay! Your body needs less as you age, which is why it’s so important to know what “normal” levels are for your stage in life. That means that working with a professional healthcare provider when considering DHEA supplementation is important.
DHEA is sometimes referred to as the “mother hormone” since it’s a powerful precursor to the major sex hormones: estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. That means that if your DHEA is low, these other vital hormones can quickly become imbalanced as well.
Your adrenals also secrete other essential hormones, including the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Stress is everywhere, which means that sometimes your adrenal glands are on overload. They’re so busy making cortisol to combat the stress that they can’t make enough DHEA to keep you healthy. And because DHEA is necessary to make the other hormones you need, this can leave you feeling totally depleted, irritable, and depressed.
DHEA supplementation, when managed properly and truly needed, is the best way to regain a clear head, and find your energy and joy in life again. And that gives you the ability to conquer the lifestyle changes you may need to keep your hormones balanced and keep you vital and healthy!
Who Can Benefit From DHEA Supplementation?
I’m certainly not recommending that every woman should supplement with DHEA. We are all unique individuals with distinct needs, and it would be irresponsible to say that this one supplement is the answer for everyone.
But for women who need it – those women who have tried so many solutions without resolution, and simply feel defeated; or the ones so tired and overwhelmed they simply don’t have the ability to move forward – DHEA supplementation can make a world of difference!
That doesn’t mean you should run out and buy supplements blindly. DHEA is best used under the supervision of a medical professional, in a dose specific to the individual, on a short-term basis. Once your body has been given a little jumpstart, the idea is to begin working on those diet and lifestyle changes that can keep you feeling great.
There are some groups of people who shouldn’t use DHEA unless explicitly told to by a healthcare professional including: pregnant and breastfeeding women, people diagnosed with cancer, and people under the age of 30.
What Are the Main Uses and Benefits of DHEA?
If you believe the hype of some manufacturers and marketing campaigns, DHEA is the answer to all your problems. Research simply doesn’t support all the claims made, and like I said before, DHEA isn’t a “cure-all.” But there are some areas in which DHEA clearly makes a huge difference. Even when the research isn’t clear cut, I have seen enough evidence in my practice to believe wholeheartedly that for some women, DHEA is indeed the answer.
Low DHEA levels have an impact on all your other hormones. Your hormones are like an orchestra – if one instrument is missing or, alternatively, overpowering all the others, the song simply doesn’t sound right. The same is true in your body. You need all your hormones working together to feel right. And DHEA is such a supportive hormone that when you have enough, it shifts the dynamic of all the others! DHEA supplementation can be one important component to balancing hormones naturally.
Inflammation is behind so many diseases, and connected to the whole range of age related health issues. Inflammation and metabolic syndrome go hand in hand, and people who have metabolic syndrome have been found to have lower levels of DHEA. Low DHEA has also been associated with autoimmune diseases, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as thyroid disorders. Evidence suggests that DHEA supplementation can improve fatigue, inflammatory skin conditions, and muscle aches and pains with very few, if any, side effects.
One of the most frequent problems I use DHEA for is when a woman comes to me with clear signs of adrenal fatigue. When a woman is exhausted beyond belief, she simply may not be able to make the nutritional and lifestyle changes I suggest until she regains some of her energy. Until adrenal balance is restored, focusing on any other area is nearly impossible, no matter how eager and committed she is to healing.
When DHEA is low, it can’t convert to the sex hormones that stimulate sexual desire. On top of that, when your body is fatigued and you can barely get out of bed, sex is the last thing on your mind! By boosting DHEA and balancing out hormones, both issues are addressed, and you’re far more likely to find yourself “in the mood.”
Related article: Where Did My Desire Go – and How Can I Get It Back?
Improving Mood and Cognitive Function
It’s hard to be happy and think clearly when you feel like you can’t even get out of bed. Supplementation with DHEA can lift the fog, helping you think more clearly. Studies have found that levels of DHEA are lower in depressed adults, and there is some evidence that DHEA supplementation can help to treat depression.
Preliminary research also suggests that DHEA may be useful when it comes to the prevention and treatment of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
Low levels of DHEA appear to be correlated with low bone mineral density. And while research has been mixed for men, DHEA has been shown to be effective for women with low bone mineral density and/or osteoporosis.
While research is in its early stages, there is evidence to suggest that DHEA may be able to help improve obesity, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome (a group of conditions including high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and excess fat around the waist).
Are DHEA Supplements Right for Me?
DHEA is produced naturally, which means your body can make more or less depending on a number of factors – nutrition, metabolism, hormonal balance, emotional state and activity level, among others. There are studies that demonstrate that boosting your DHEA levels without supplementation is possible – by getting enough sleep, sun exposure, maintaining a healthy BMI, and even just slowing down a bit. But sometimes, you just need a little help to get things started.
The only way to truly know if your DHEA levels are low is to have testing through a qualified healthcare professional. This will allow your practitioner to know exactly what’s going on in your body, and to design the best protocol for your unique needs.
If you do determine that supplementation is indicated, I recommend getting supplements from a trusted source, not at a superstore – or even a health food store. Policies regulating these products are lacking, which is why I only use pharmaceutical-grade DHEA compounded by a reputable pharmacy.
A lot of the over the counter products also have doses that are much too high for what most women need. In my experience, women only need tiny amounts of this hormone to begin feeling better. A soft, gentle approach is so much better than hammering your body with huge doses of anything. We don’t need a sledgehammer to hit a tiny nail! Often just 5 mg of DHEA twice daily makes an amazing difference!
I like to use compounded drops since that gives me the ability to really tailor the dosage for the specific woman I’m working with. Every woman is different, and how DHEA is converted depends on your own unique biochemistry.
I also believe that DHEA is typically only necessary for short-term use. It’s not something you should need to be taking indefinitely unless there’s a really good reason! Careful monitoring of how the body is responding is important, because it is an upstream hormone, meaning it affects the other hormones. After the initial boost to get you started, lifestyle changes and attention to nutrition can help your body produce enough naturally, and it’s important to know when that starts to happen!
DHEA May Just Be the Boost You Need to Love Life Again!
I said it before, and I’ll say it again: of all the hormones I use to help women regain vitality and joy, DHEA is the one I love the most. That’s because it’s truly a game changer. While you can survive without DHEA, quality of life certainly isn’t very high when your levels drop too low. One of the biggest DHEA benefits is that it gives women the stamina they need to take control of their own well being. When used with the right support from an experienced healthcare professional, DHEA might be the kickstart you’ve been looking for!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD