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.