You may have heard that boosting your levels of pregnenolone, a precursor to steroid hormones such as testosterone and DHEA, may help stave off many of the consequences of diminishing levels of key hormones, like low sex drive, aging and fatigue. But what do the experts say?
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Produced by your adrenal glands and converted from cholesterol, pregnenolone is the raw material or building block that your body uses to make the "stress hormone" cortisol and other hormones, including progesterone, testosterone, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and estrogen, explains Luiza Petre, MD, a cardiologist and professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.
Pregnenolone is also touted — though with little evidence — as playing a supporting role in anti-aging and energy, according to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).
Read more: Is Pregnenolone Supplement Safe?
Steroid Hormones Explained
Some steroid hormones direct sex characteristics such as menstrual cycle and pregnancy in women and muscle growth, facial hair and deep voice in men, notes the Endocrine Society. For example:
Cortisol has other important functions aside from being released when your body senses a threat. According to the Endocrine Society, it helps to control blood sugar levels, blood pressure, regulate metabolism and aid memory formulation.
Testosterone in normal levels supports your sex drive, energy level, muscle and bone strength and fertility, notes the Endocrine Society.
DHEA is converted into important hormones — testosterone and estradiol, which is a type of estrogen. The Endocrine Society also points out that some believe DHEA has brain benefits but that there's a lack of research on humans to substantiate the claims.
However, an animal study published in January 2019 in the Journal of Biological Chemistry found that DHEA may boost learning and memory, relieve depression and improve brain function. The study also notes that pregnenolone, even when it's not acting as a hormone precursor, has long been known as an anti-inflammatory agent in the body.
Making Pregnenolone Naturally
Your body makes pregnenolone from cholesterol, Dr. Petre explains. "Cholesterol converts into pregnenolone, which is the mother to many steroid hormones," she says. "So from fat ingestion we get fatty acids, cholesterol, pregnenolone and then steroid hormones."
Does this mean you need to eat more cholesterol-laden foods to keep your pregnenolone stores up? Not entirely, she says.
Cholesterol comes from your liver and your diet, the American Heart Association notes. Meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products all contain cholesterol, but these foods are also high in artery-clogging saturated and trans fats. An abundance of these fats can tip the scale from a normal cholesterol level to an unhealthy one.
There are good fats, too, which can help protect the heart instead of hurting it, Dr. Petre says. "Eating healthy fats like nuts, fish, avocado, chia or flax seeds, olive or coconut oil will naturally increase the [material] needed to make more pregnenolone," she says.
"Although specific foods are not directly linked with an increase in pregnenolone levels, increasing your intake of anti-inflammatory foods such as fatty fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids and colorful fruits and vegetables to maximize antioxidant intake may help the body to reduce internal inflammation, allowing the adrenal glands to function at their peak," adds Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, a dietitian in Franklin, New Jersey, and author of Belly Fat Diet for Dummies.
Keeping Hormones in Check
Many factors can influence your hormonal balance and cause it to tilt to one side or the other, Dr. Petre says.
For example, excess fat tissue tilts the balance toward more estrogen, and men with extra estrogen have more breast tissue, a condition known as gynecomastia, she says. Overweight women tend to have more testosterone and, as a result, will develop excessive body hair, called hirsutism, often in places typically seen in men, such as the face.
"Stress can tilt the balance toward more cortisol and less estrogen and progesterone," Dr. Petre says.
Reducing stress and improving sleep are also key ways to boost your natural supply of pregnenolone, Palinski-Wade adds. "A lack of sleep and high stress levels can result in adrenal fatigue, which can then lead to a reduction in hormone production" and its associated symptoms, she says.
While making healthy changes to your diet and lifestyle can help replenish pregnenolone, taking supplements is not advised, USADA cautions. "Adrenal support" supplements, such as pregnenolone, may contain thyroid hormones and steroids that aren't listed on the labels and may cause dangerous side effects, according to a March 2018 study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
Read more: Vitamins for Hormonal Balance
- Luiza Petre, MD, cardiologist, assistant clinical professor of cardiology, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York City
- Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, dietitian, Franklin, New Jersey; author, Belly Fat Diet for Dummies
- U.S. Anti-Doping Agency: “Pregnenolone: What You Need to Know”
- Endocrine Society: “Your Health and Hormones”
- Endocrine Society: “Testosterone and Androgens”
- Endocrine Society: “What Is Cortisol?”
- Endocrine Society: “Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)”
- Mayo Clinic Proceedings: “Over-the-Counter “Adrenal Support” Supplements Contain Thyroid and Steroid-Based Adrenal Hormones”
- Journal of Biological Chemistry: “The Neurosteroid, Pregnenolone Promotes Degradation of Key Proteins in the Innate Immune Signaling to Suppress Inflammation”
- American Heart Association: “What Is Cholesterol?”