Dehydroepiandrosterone or DHEA (also called androstenolone), is a very important neuroactive steroid. It modulates or controls neurons’ ability to fire (called neuronal excitability) in the brain. It does this by making the brain produce GABA or Gamma-Aminobutyric acid, (by acting as an antagonist). DHEA also impacts the production of NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartic acid) which mimics, or copies, glutamate in the brain. Glutamate plays a significant role in learning and memory, as well as being responsible for sending signals between nerve cells. DHEA also produces the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and serotonin (20) which are important for emotional well-being and though processes.
In its sulfated form (DHEA-S) it is the most abundant steroid in the human body. It is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands, the brain, and the gonads (1). It circulates throughout the body. It helps in the synthesis of sex hormones and other biological functions (2). It can turn to estrogen (and androgens) in women and testosterone in men.
DHEA is associated with health and longevity. Within the brain it helps neurons develop, function, and survive. In the body it helps build and maintain muscle mass. This hormone is especially important to women as all estrogens, and almost half of all androgens, are synthesized from it in the peripheral tissues (3). In post menopausal women DHEA is the primary source of female sex hormones, even though it has, on average, declined by 60% compared to pre-menopause (19). It is so important that a lack of it is associated with most medical issues in postmenopausal women (19).
Low levels of DHEA have been connected to impaired sexual functioning, lower cognitive performance, and an inferior sense of emotional well-being (4), to the point that a lack of it is associated with depression and supplements can in fact have antidepressant like effects (18).
A supplement in the form of a sulfate can be taken to try to increase the amount of DHEA in the body (4). Exercise can also make the body increase production of it. Eating foods necessary to supply your body with the components it needs to build DHEA is also a good idea, (see list at bottom of article).
Regarding cognitive/though related functioning, studies show that a higher level of DHEA produced by the body is associated with better global cognitive functioning in both sexes (19). In women, when it is taken as a supplement, it is associated with better concentration only when distracted and, under these conditions, it improves working memory (17). This may change with age. Studies of elderly individuals using high dosses of supplements, 25 mg to 50 mg per day, have show a positive effect on cognitive, or though related, functioning (19). But, the researchers voiced concern for potential side effects (though descried as mild).
Conversely, with regards to depression, in human studies it was found that supplements can improve an overall sense of well-being, decrease fatigue, increase libido, and prevent depressive episodes (18). In one human trial of DHEA supplementation for depression, after only two weeks half of the subjects showed an improvement (50% or more). Subjects were given 30 mg twice a day for two weeks. In another study (6 weeks in total) with subjects having the strength of the supplement increase over time (from 90 mg a day for the first three weeks to 450 mg a day, given in 150mg doses 3 times per day for the last three), subjects who were rated as moderately depressed at the start of the trial reported improvements in sexual functioning and a 50% reduction in symptoms associated with depression. Those subjects who responded well to DHEA were still asymptomatic 12 months later (20). Regarding DHEA’s ability to lessen psychotic symptoms, in a small human study on schizophrenics, DHEA supplements had an effect on psychotic symptoms. Both male and female schizophrenics, taking 100 mg per day of DHEA as well as previously prescribed antipsychotic medications, showed great improvement in symptoms (20). Interestingly the women had a greater positive reaction to the supplements.
When it comes to sexual functioning and organism human studies are inconstant. Some studies (on sexual gratification) show a placebo effect, and other studies showing an effect due to the supplement (5).
In people DHEA (1%) cream may be a good intervention for sexual problems. This is as it has been shown to improve arousal, vaginal dryness, and lubrication, as well as intensity of orgasm (5). This is as DHEA may help deal with, or ameliorate, vaginal wall thinning. DHEA helps make estrogen, which improves sexual functioning, lubrication, and the quality of vaginal tissues. After menopause vaginal tissue thinning can result from estrogen and estradiol falling bellow 20 picograms in the blood. This is very important as estrogen improves vaginal thickness so much that pre-menopausal (especially those 20 to 30 years old) have vaginal tissues 20 to 30 cells thick. In comparison, post menopausal women have vaginal tissues only 6 to 8 cells thick (5).
Regarding post-menopausal atrophy of the sex organs, after the age of 30, naturally occurring DHEA starts to decrease in the vaginal tissues (6) and may impact vaginal atrophy. In human studies vulvovaginal atrophy has been treated successfully with intravaginal DHEA safely. This cream (prasterone) has been shown to replace missing vaginal cell-specific intracellular hormones (estrogens and androgens).
For those women who are uncomfortable with the idea of taking HRT (see below for potential problems) sexual problems may be addressed by natural therapies like DHEA, a dietary supplement that may help increase sexual arousal, but before taking it you should talk to your doctor (7).
When it comes to improved production of sex hormones, animal models have shown great success with supplements. For instance, in an animal study, using female animals, DHEA was successfully converted to sex hormones within 3 hours of administration (3). Some of the conversion happened in the adrenal glands (androgens) and some in the ovaries (estrogens) themselves. Here androstenedione (AD) rose by 264% and testosterone (T) rose by 8000% in comparison with the control animals, which did not receive the supplement. After 6 hours, estradiol (E2) had significantly increased to about 113% more than the control animals. Even in animals without ovaries there was an increase of 537% in AD and a 2737% increase in T, due to conversions happening in the adrenal glands. While DHEA in female animals with intact ovaries did have an improvement in in estrogen and progesterone production in the sex organs, DHEA didn’t improve E2, estrone or E1, and progesterone or P in those with out ovaries. Basically, DHEA supplements help to turn pregnenolone into progesterone, and estrone and androstenedione into estrogen (3).
Supplimental DHEA can improve bone density (8;18). DHEA substitution can increase muscle mass, improve the appearance of loose connective tissue (adipose fat or tissue), and help recover one’s physical condition, and appearance (8). And remember, the hhormone DHEA or Dehydroepiandrosterone (11) a is a treatment for depression (12).
DHEA can be made from good fats and with plenty of omega 3 fatty acids. Eat pumpkin seeds, raw butter, ghee, oils like flax, palm, olive and cod liver (13). In Canada DHEA as a supplement is available only by prescription (9). DHEA is available for sale as a supplement in the US (10).
Exercise has been proven to increase the production of the hormone DHEA, or Dehydroepiandrosterone (11), this may be one reason physical activity is a recognized treatment for depression (12). And remember improved production of DHEA is associated with self-esteem and reduced fatigue (16) as well as anti-aging, improved immune response (11) and improved memory (12). DHEA can change to estrogen in women and testosterone in men (15). Increased DHEA may be one of the reasons why menopausal women who exercise have been shown to assess their symptoms as being less important and so cope better with them (41).
In Canada DHEA as a supplement is available only by prescription (9) as it is in most European countries (5). DHEA is available for sale as a supplement in the US (10). For women a dose of 15 mg to 25 mg per day is recommended (22).
DHEA can cause confusion, anxiety and agitation. There is concern that long term use of supplements can increase the risk of cancers associated with sex hormones, including breast cancer (21), and taking too high a dose is associated with acne (22). Get your hormones tested before taking a supplement.
Please be advised that this information is for educational and entertainment purposes only. Please seek appropriate care from a qualified medical or mental health professional.
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3 Zhou, Y., Kang, j., Chen, D., Han, N., & Ma, H., (2015). Ample evidence: dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) conversion into activated steroid hormones occurs in adrenal and ovary in female rats PLoS ONE, 10(5):e0124511 tenth anniversary. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0124511
4 Davis, S.R., Panjari, M., & Stanczyk, F.Z., (2011). DHEA replacement for postmenopausal women. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 96(1):1642-1653. DOI: 10.1210/jc.2010-2888
5 Harrison-Horner, J., (2012). Is DHEA the next wonder drug for menopause? Web MD website. Women’s Health webpage. Accessed on Jan 30th, 2018. Accessed at: https://blogs.webmd.com/womens-health/2012/01/is-dhea-the-next-wonder-drug-for-menopause.html
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