Dehydroepiandrosterone, DHEA, is the most prevalent steroid in the body. It plays an important role in immunity, healing and growth. As a prohormone, DHEA increases more basic hormones such as testosterone, progesterone and estrogen. Pathology and age can reduce circulating levels of DHEA. These low levels may cause deficiency syndromes that produce clear symptoms. Nutritional supplements can augment DHEA, but people should use these only after consulting a doctor.
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People who care for the chronically ill often show elevated cortisol and anxiety resulting from the stressful situation. Cortisol and DHEA typically have an inverse relationship, so such caregivers may have low DHEA. A study by C.M. Jeckel and associates published in the 2010 volume of Neuroimmunomodulation tested this hypothesis in healthy people taking care of Alzheimer's patients. For this report, the authors measured dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate, a DHEA metabolite that provides a reliable marker for the endogenous steroid. Results showed that the caregivers had high anxiety scores and low dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate levels. They also had elevated T cell proliferation, which suggests their immune system was hyperactive.
The adrenal glands produce most of the body's circulating DHEA. Yet brain cells can synthesize the prohormone as well. Such data suggest that DHEA may directly affect cognition and emotion. A report by E.A. Jankowska and co-workers presented in the September 2010 edition of European Heart Journal looked at the DHEA levels in men with heart failure. Such men remain at risk for depression and mortality. The data indicated that they also had low amounts of DHEA. In fact, DHEA levels and depression scores directly correlated. Men with the lowest DHEA showed the greatest depression. These men were also most likely to have the worst prognosis.
The presence of cardiovascular disease may also indicate low DHEA. A survey by H.A. Feldman and colleagues described in the January 1, 2001 edition of the American Journal of Epidemiology evaluated the relationship between heart disease and DHEA level. These researchers followed healthy men over nine years and took comprehensive physical and social data before and after the testing period. The data showed that men with the lowest DHEA were most likely to develop heart disease during the survey. Interestingly, no other demographic factor contributed to the results. The latter finding shows that DHEA, or a closely related variable, has a unique role in human health and disease.
Symptoms of diabetes can indicate that DHEA levels are low as well. That's because DHEA lowers insulin and facilitates proper blood sugar regulation. A study by O. Tissandier and his team in Paris, France looked at DHEA and insulin levels in older men. These scientists tested two groups of subjects: trained and sedentary. The results, published in the July 2001 issue of the European Journal of Applied Physiology, showed that sedentary men had lower DHEA and higher insulin. This finding has clinical relevance because doctors consider elevated insulin a warning sign for diabetes.
Your adrenal glands are small but important organs that sit atop your kidneys. They produce hormones your body needs to function properly, including dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, which is needed to produce male and female sex hormones. If your adrenal glands are under-functioning, they may not produce enough DHEA to meet your body's needs.
Your adrenal glands have a lot of responsibility. Aside from producing sex hormones, they produce your body's primary stress hormone, known as cortisol, which helps buffer the everyday stress placed on your mind and body. They also produce mineralocorticoids, which are hormones that help your body regulate minerals and balance fluids. Proper fluid balance is important to your cardiovascular health.
Your body uses DHEA to produce androgens and estrogens, which are male and female primary sex hormones. Estrogens are important to the female reproductive system and androgens are responsible for male characteristics. Your DHEA levels peak around age 25 and naturally decline with age. By the time you reach age 70, your adrenal glands produce about 80 percent less DHEA than they did when you were young.
Your doctor can perform a DHEA sulfate test to determine your DHEA blood levels. This test is commonly used to determine your adrenal gland functioning. Normal DHEA levels range based on your age and sex. For example, 45 to 270 ug/dL is the normal range if you are a female age 30 to 39. Your doctor can confirm whether your levels are within normal range or not.
If your doctor confirms that your DHEA levels are too low for your age and sex range, he may perform additional tests to determine the cause. When your adrenal glands are not producing enough hormones, it is called adrenal insufficiency. If you have Addison's disease, your adrenal gland production drops to less than 20 percent of its full capacity. Adrenal insufficiency has several causes. An adrenal gland tumor can prevent it from functioning optimally. An autoimmune disease can cause the immune system to attack your adrenal gland, resulting in insufficiency. A pituitary tumor can cause low adrenal function. Your pituitary gland is a small, pea-sized gland at the base of your brain that controls how much hormone your adrenal gland produces.
Low DHEA Treatment
If your doctor determines that your low DHEA is adversely affecting your health, he may recommend treatment options. Treatment depends on the cause. If there are no obvious causes, you doctor may recommend that you take synthetic DHEA in pill or cream form. If there is an adrenal tumor, he may recommend surgery to remove it. If you are diagnosed with low DHEA, discuss your treatment options with your doctor.
Your body requires vitamins and nutrients to function and your adrenal glands are no exception. Your adrenal glands require vitamin B-6 and the minerals zinc and magnesium to function properly. It is helpful to ask your doctor to check your levels of these nutrients. If you are deficient in any or all of these nutrients, it can contribute to adrenal insufficiency.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.