Whenever the seasons begin to change and we start to think about the colder weather coming, I find myself bombarded by articles, tips, and tricks related to boosting the immune system. I totally get it… I don’t want to catch a cold or get stuck at home with the flu either!
Recently, a patient of mine asked me why we’re more likely to get sick during the colder months. She added something else interesting: “It seems like the older I get, the more likely I am to get the flu… and it feels like it lasts forever!”
This is something that I don’t think is being talked about nearly enough! Finding ways to boost the immune system is great, but shouldn’t we understand what’s weakening the immune system first?
At first, my patient thought that she may have just been imagining the fact that she was catching more frequent, longer-lasting viruses with every passing year. But actually, immune function does decline with age… and it declines with stress. And doesn’t it sometimes seem like we’re not only getting older but more exhausted with every passing year?
It really is so important to protect our immune function! Shielding ourselves from the common cold is probably incentive enough, but a weakened immune system can also make us susceptible to more serious infections and chronic illnesses.
There are all kinds of factors that can contribute to decreased immune system function, especially as we get older, and when we’re under chronic stress. One of the factors is low levels of the “super” hormone DHEA.
An Overview of DHEA
DHEA is an essential hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands, and that plays a number of different roles in the body.
DHEA is often talked about as a “miracle” hormone for anti-aging and weight loss, among other things. It’s not that– but you might know that I am a huge believer in the importance of this hormone for women!
I am an advocate for understanding DHEA as part of a bigger picture– not a band-aid solution or a miracle, but an essential hormone that so many women are lacking, particularly as they age, and one that can affect so many different aspects of your health.
I talk about DHEA so often because so many of my patients come in with symptoms of low levels, such as chronic fatigue, low libido, decreased immune function, and aching joints.
And for these women, improving DHEA levels can do incredible things, from boosting immune function to increasing energy levels to building up strength. DHEA can also reduce or slow down many of the “symptoms” of aging that we sometimes think of as inevitable. And, without DHEA, we can’t produce adequate levels of other essential hormones.
DHEA and the Immune System
There are a number of different benefits of having adequate levels of DHEA. One of them, an essential point about DHEA that doesn’t get quite as much media attention, is its effect on the immune system, and our ability to fight viruses and infections.
DHEA levels go down when we get older, which is thought to be one of the reasons why our immune function declines with age.
Research has also shown that women with certain autoimmune conditions like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis have lower levels of DHEA.
One of the key reasons why DHEA is connected to immune function involves its relationship to the stress hormone cortisol– but we’ll get to that in a minute!
How Aging & Stress Affect DHEA Levels & Immune Function
When we get older, all kinds of things change for us, physiologically and otherwise. This is normal! It’s natural for DHEA production to gradually slow down as we age. But it doesn’t mean that the low DHEA levels I see in many of my patients are healthy, and it doesn’t mean that there’s nothing we can do about it.
What about stress? Well, to put it very simply, stress is hard on the immune system! But let me break that down a bit more.
Just about all of my patients have some level of adrenal fatigue or dysfunction, meaning that because of chronic stress, their adrenal glands, which produce extremely important hormones like DHEA and cortisol, are not functioning properly.
The adrenal glands and the entire stress response system are very closely connected to the function of the immune system. In other words, when something is out of balance within our stress response system, the immune system suffers.
The Cortisol & DHEA Balancing Act
Often, when we talk about DHEA, we have to talk about cortisol too, because DHEA and cortisol are known for having many “opposite” functions– like a couple where one partner balances the other out.
Producing too much or too little of either hormone throws everything out of whack, and this is one thing that can happen with adrenal fatigue.
As with so many other things, we need to find a balance in order to be our healthiest selves!
I always like to look at this from a lifestyle perspective. Stress is at the root of so many of our physiological problems, and stress reduction is crucial in order to improve adrenal function, immune function, hormonal health, and the way we feel every day.
Let me put it this way. We have to find balance in our lives in order to achieve balance in our hormones!
DHEA:Cortisol Balance and the Immune System
Getting sick more frequently is often a hidden sign of an imbalance between the hormones DHEA and cortisol (which is a sign of adrenal fatigue).
Immune function is one of the areas where cortisol and DHEA play opposite roles. Basically, DHEA boosts immune function, while cortisol generally suppresses it.
Although DHEA naturally decreases as we age, cortisol levels don’t tend to change.
This alone is enough to become an imbalance, and to lead to suppressed immune function, increased inflammation, more frequent infections, and increased susceptibility to viruses, chronic illness, and allergies.
When we factor in the effects of chronic stress– think: from overworking, trying to take care of our families, constant emails and social media messages, eating inflammatory foods, not getting enough sleep– everything can really get thrown out of whack!
The thing is, cortisol doesn’t suppress immune function because it’s a bad guy. Remember that cortisol’s job is to help us react to stress. So, when we encounter a stressful situation, cortisol wants all hands on deck– the body’s primary focus should be on fighting off or running from that stressful situation or danger. This means temporarily suppressing the function of other systems, like the reproductive and immune systems, as they are less essential in the face of true danger.
But, if cortisol levels are chronically too high– as is the case when we are faced with as many constant stressors as most of us are in the modern world– then the immune system can become chronically suppressed.
This leaves us open and vulnerable to viruses, disease, and infection… all of which, are additional stressors, which creates a vicious cycle.
On the other hand, if cortisol levels are too low because of an advanced stage of adrenal fatigue, the immune system is essentially left to run wild, which can lead to chronic inflammation and impairment of the immune system.
Basically, any imbalance between cortisol and DHEA is a problem for the immune system– regardless of whether cortisol levels are too high or too low.
Supplementing with DHEA
Some studies have shown that DHEA supplementation can boost immune function. There are also some interesting studies that show a connection between levels of DHEA and some illnesses, including cancer.
In general, DHEA supplementation, under the guidance and supervision of a knowledgeable practitioner, can do amazing things towards the beginning of treatment, in order to give you the energy, immunity, and boost you need to make the more sustainable, long term changes to your life and wellbeing.
Although DHEA supplements are available over the counter, I definitely don’t recommend experimenting with them without medical supervision. It’s important to work with someone who can look at DHEA levels as one part of your bigger picture, and help you get to and treat the root cause of any deficiencies or imbalance.
And of course, I always work with my patients on natural ways to boost DHEA levels, in conjunction with and after any recommended supplementation.
DHEA Doesn’t Act Alone
Given what we know about DHEA and the immune system so far, it makes sense to consider boosting levels of this hormone in order to boost immune function.
But this– like just about all of the other possible uses of DHEA– has been hotly debated for years.
I think most of this is because the media has a tendency to see everything as black and white or absolute.
We see these amazing benefits of DHEA, so we start to tout it as a magic pill, and then those who criticize the idea of DHEA as a magic pill end up swinging too far in the other direction and arguing that DHEA just isn’t worth it.
When it comes to DHEA and the immune system, I see the same confusion.
We might still be behind in human research on the question of whether or not DHEA boosts the immune system, or to what extent. But maybe the question is not quite that simple!
We know that DHEA is a factor. But is taking DHEA supplements a solution to weakened immune system function in and of itself? Of course not. What I do with my patients is look at, consider, and understand DHEA as part of the bigger picture.
Addressing and boosting DHEA levels is just one part of a multifaceted approach I take in order to support and enhance a woman’s hormonal, emotional, and physical health, including immunity.
I’ve talked a lot about this approach, including the fact that if DHEA levels are low, I don’t just throw a DHEA supplement at the problem! Nutritional and lifestyle changes are absolutely essential in order to heal from a stress-related hormonal imbalance.
How to Boost DHEA & Protect the Immune System
Supplementation with DHEA over the short term may help to improve immune function for some people. As always, it should be talked about with your practitioner first. Those with immune disorders or who are taking immunosuppressants should also be cautious about supplementation.
The good news is, you can actually increase your DHEA levels naturally, by doing things like getting enough rest, spending time in the sunshine, practicing mindfulness and relaxation techniques, and eating a clean diet. You can learn more about how to boost DHEA levels in my comprehensive article on DHEA for women.
Exercise has also been shown to improve hormonal imbalances, and to help mitigate the effects of aging and stress on the immune system. Depending on the level and stage of adrenal fatigue you may be at, high intensity exercise might not be a good idea– but moderate, mindful exercise almost always is.
Reducing and managing chronic stress (tip: learn how to say no!) is essential in order to protect the immune system.
As with all health issues related to stress (hint: almost all of them are!), taking a close look at which stressors in your life can be eliminated is an essential step, and one that your mind and body will thank you for!
Finally, adrenal function should be addressed together with DHEA levels and hormonal imbalances– DHEA is not going to solve the problem all by itself. That’s a lot of pressure for one hormone!
I hope that after reading this you have a better understanding of what might be going on with your immune system, and what you can do about it. I think you just might find that by improving DHEA levels and reducing stress for immune function, you experience other, unexpected benefits, like more energy or a better mood! Everything is connected, and the more you can learn about supporting your body and your mind, the better you will feel.
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD