Recently, a patient came into my office visibly upset. When I asked what brought her to see me, she told me what had happened just a few days earlier. She was getting her children ready for school, when her youngest accidentally spilled a glass of water.
She totally lost it.
She flew into a fit of rage. Cursing, yelling, and screaming… over a cup of water. Afterwards, she sobbed, knowing her reaction wasn’t normal or appropriate. She felt like the worst mother in the world. Though this was the worst overreaction she’d had, it wasn’t the first. That’s why she came to see me. She was desperate to know what could be making her respond to situations this way and hurt the people she loved best. Why had she snapped like that? And how could she avoid doing it again?
Here’s what I told her: Often, when we are trying to do everything for everyone, we end up stretched like a rubber band. And just like a rubber band, we all have our breaking point. But we have no way of knowing what that last thing will be. What will stretch us so far that we snap? For her, it was the water spill. But it wasn’t really the water spill. Her reaction to the water spill was all about hormones.
Maybe you can relate – Are you overreacting to situations? Snapping at people in traffic? Or maybe you generally feel “off.” There’s an often overlooked hormone that just may be behind your issues.
It’s not estrogen.
It’s not testosterone.
Let’s take a look at what DHEA is, what it does, and how an imbalance of DHEA levels can wreak havoc on your health. Then I’ll give you some tips on achieving the right balance for you!
DHEA Beyond the Headlines
DHEA is the abbreviation for dehydroepiandrosterone, which is the most abundant circulating steroid hormone in both men and women. DHEA also comes in a sulfated form called dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS). DHEA is produced in the adrenal glands, which are located on top of each kidney.
Your DHEA levels are highest when you’re born and as you age it slowly declines throughout your life. This is normal and natural. There’s no reason to supplement or boost DHEA simply because you are experiencing this natural dip. But when you notice big health problems, your levels may have dropped too severely. That’s when a little extra DHEA can make a big difference!
DHEA is considered your “feel good hormone” and when your levels are even a tiny bit off you can experience a range of difficulties, including: chronic fatigue; irritability; weakness; unexplained weight gain; low libido; infertility; and a general sense that you “aren’t yourself” anymore.
DHEA is needed for metabolism, energy production, and more – which is why it’s strongly associated with aging in general. In fact, it’s earned quite a reputation as an anti-aging remedy! Just a little supplementation can go a long way, offering noticeable positive side effects relating to aging and numerous areas of your health.
Our DHEA levels drop rapidly once we hit 30, so many people will experience some changes with DHEA supplementation. But DHEA supplements aren’t really intended for long term use, and you really only need them if you have a serious deficiency or dysfunction.
DHEA has made headlines a lot over the past couple of decades. It’s been touted as a “fountain of youth” drug, the “magic” solution for building muscle, losing weight, curing depression, and getting through menopause. But there are also those who call these claims fraud, who say that the whole DHEA hype is a giant hoax.
The truth, I think, lies somewhere in the middle. It’s certainly not a magic solution to every health problem. But when you really need more, DHEA supplementation can, indeed, help.
Can I Have Too Much DHEA?
For years, people have been talking about what happens when DHEA is low. But what happens when your DHEA levels are too high? This can be just as much an issue for women, and because it’s not talked about much, may be even easier to miss.
Excess DHEA can cause weight gain, fatigue, excess hair growth (hirsutism) or hair loss, acne, mood changes, reduced breast size, deepening voice, increased muscle mass, and infertility.
High levels of DHEA can come from excessive supplementation, which is why I don’t recommend that you self-prescribe, but instead work closely with your health care professional. But there are several other common causes of excess DHEA, including: chronic stress; PTSD; PCOS; high prolactin levels; genetic disease; and hypersensitivity to androgens and DHEA at the cellular level.
Why Balance is Key with DHEA Levels
Did you notice that signs of high and low levels of DHEA overlap? That clearly illustrates an important point: DHEA imbalance is a tricky issue, and you need to have exactly enough to feel good. But here’s the catch — the “normal” range changes throughout your lifetime. And because everyone has a unique chemical makeup, sometimes you can be on the edges of the normal range and still have difficulties. That’s why looking at the whole picture is so important.
Why is it so important for DHEA levels to be properly balanced? One striking reason is that some studies that have shown that risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality increases in patients with too much or too little DHEA. But beyond that startling information, having an appropriate level of DHEA means you’ll look and feel your best!
When I test patients for DHEA imbalances, I’m looking at the complete package — what the levels say, what she tells me about how she feels, and what her lifestyle is like. Then I can make recommendations that can help boost or lower DHEA levels if necessary. What benefits can I reap from having appropriate levels of DHEA?
When DHEA levels are where they should be, in that “just right” place, there are so many benefits to be gained. Research has shown that when given to those who need more, thus bringing levels to where they should be, DHEA can have these 17 amazing impacts:
- Reduces inflammation
- Balances mood
- Strengthens muscle
- Improves bone density (especially in women)
- Boosts the immune system
- Reduces total cholesterol levels
- Promotes general wellness
- Improves sexual satisfaction (especially in women)
- Increases insulin sensitivity
- Promotes weight loss
- Slows age-related skin atrophy
- Protects against asthma and allergies
- Improves fertility
- Prevents age-related vaginal atrophy
- Improves heart health
- Lowers risk of diabetes
- Protects against cognitive decline
Likewise, reducing DHEA levels when they are too high can alleviate associated health issues, such as aggression, irregular blood pressure, fatigue, excess hair growth.
Of course, we could benefit from more research on DHEA to help us hone in on ideal levels, proper supplementation dosage, and long term impacts. But there’s one thing I know for sure — I’ve seen an amazing turn around in health when we give attention to DHEA and address imbalances.
So many women dismiss their symptoms as normal. They think they can’t do anything about it. But when imbalances in their DHEA are to blame, there’s plenty that can be done!
Tips for Balancing DHEA Levels
When dealing with DHEA imbalance – whether high or low – it’s critical to take steps to find the “sweet spot” where you feel good again. A combination of lifestyle changes, attention to other hormones, and supplementation (if levels are low) could be just what you need to get back to being who you really want to be! Let’s take a look at a few of these things now.
In the case of low DHEA, short term, supervised supplementation can make a huge difference! When you take DHEA supplements it elevates the levels of DHEA and DHEAS circulating in your blood, as well as your DHEA to cortisol ratio. Studies have found that this change is especially beneficial to women because it increases the biotransformation of DHEA into other hormones in levels comparable to when they were younger.
DHEA is also a precursor to estrogen and testosterone, meaning your body needs plenty of it to keep those hormones running smoothly too. Our bodies are capable of rapidly metabolizing DHEA.
I’ve seen the effects of balancing DHEA levels transform my patients’ lives. One of these patients, a 28-year-old mom named Lisa, could barely get out of bed. After I tested her adrenals and she began supplementing with DHEA, she was back to normal in two months. You can read more about Lisa’s story here.
It’s important to reiterate that too much DHEA can have just as severe health consequences as not having enough. That’s why it’s so important to work with a trusted practitioner.
Balance All Your Hormones
Every hormone in your body has an important function, so it’s critical that you have optimal levels of each. If you try to balance one with no regard to the others, you could find yourself in worse shape than when you started. Hormones are like an orchestra – all of the instruments need to be playing in tune and at the same time to create beautiful harmonies.
There are so many things you can do to balance your hormones naturally. Read more about how in my article, 5 Ways to Balance Hormones Naturally.
Choose a Healthy Lifestyle
One of the best ways to keep your DHEA properly balanced is to make healthy choices in all aspects of your life. This includes eating plenty of anti-inflammatory foods to keep DHEA levels from going to high, and avoiding processed foods and sugar. Exercise is also important, but be sure you aren’t overdoing it, which might raise DHEA levels too much. Aim for working out at least three times a week, and balance cardio with weight training. Getting the proper amount of sleep, and finding ways to reduce stress in your life will also keep DHEA levels balanced.
Are There Risks to DHEA Supplementation that I Should Be Aware of?
Some women have seen the headlines touting DHEA as a muscle builder, and are worried that they’ll bulk up if supplements are prescribed for them. But research suggests that DHEA supplementation improves overall body composition, as opposed to increasing muscle mass and strength. So there’s really no need to worry about that.
But DHEA supplements have been reported to cause several side effects, including:
- Skin issues, such as acne
- Facial hair growth in women
- Hair loss
- Menstrual cycle disruptions
- Cancer Diagnosis
That’s why it’s not a great idea for anyone to take DHEA supplements indefinitely without close medical supervision. If you experience any of these while you’re on DHEA supplements, be sure to tell your functional medicine practitioner immediately. It may mean you’ve tipped the balance too far.
Who Should Avoid DHEA?
There are a few people who should avoid DHEA altogether, unless for some specific reason their practitioner is recommending otherwise. People who should avoid DHEA or proceed with extreme caution include:
- Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding
- Diabetics – DHEA can impact insulin
- Conditions related to hormones – including fibroids, endometriosis or breast, uterine, and ovarian cancer
- Liver conditions
Addiotionally, if you are under the age of 30, you shouldn’t need DHEA and should only take it if directed by a doctor.
Balance Your DHEA Levels and Rediscover Who You Truly Are!
In my practice, when we work on balancing DHEA levels properly, I hear so many stories of women finding their true selves again. They tell me their road rage miraculously disappears, they have infinitely more patience with their children, partners, and co-workers. They look in the mirror and love what they see again. And they have the energy to get out there and enjoy life. When you ask your practitioner about DHEA and take steps to find the right balance, you can feel this way too!