By Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN, NP
A few years ago, headlines linked DHEA to athletes “doping” with steroids, leading to a lot of questions about DHEA. While many have heard of it, most people don’t know that DHEA is actually a natural steroid and precursor hormone produced by the adrenals. Manufacturers hype DHEA supplements as a magic cure-all for many things: muscle loss, weight loss, osteoporosis, and depression — even menopause. DHEA has been labeled as everything from “fountain of youth drug” to fraud – and the very real benefits of DHEA, particularly for women, got a little lost in all the controversy.
The truth is, for those who need it, adrenal support with DHEA supplementation can make a big difference in physical and mental health. I’ve seen it help patients get going again when they feel like they’ve hit rock bottom. But of course, it’s never as simple as just popping a pill! When used appropriately — in a therapeutic setting under medical supervision — DHEA is a critical component to jumpstarting hormonal balance.
What is DHEA?
Dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, is a steroid hormone synthesized from cholesterol and secreted by the adrenal glands. The adrenals are walnut-sized glands located right above your kidneys. The average adult makes about 25 mg of DHEA per day (some more, some less) with dwindling production as we get older. A decline in DHEA with the passage of time is clearly what nature intended — and as far as we know, a healthy process.
DHEA and Adrenal Function
Your lifestyle, diet and stress levels all contribute to the amount of DHEA your body can produce in a given period. As a physician, I look first and foremost at adrenal function using DHEA levels as one of several diagnostic tools. But simply adding more DHEA to the equation is not the answer, despite what some of the popular products claim. DHEA alone can’t fix adrenal imbalance (don’t believe any product that says it will!), but it can be an important factor in a combination approach that includes hormonal and nutritional support, lifestyle changes, and proper rest.
So, you can’t look to DHEA supplementation as a stand-alone solution. DHEA is one part of the whole concert of hormones at work every moment in your body. Before you tinker with that balance it’s a good idea to understand what is going on in your life on all levels — physiologically and emotionally. And the best way to know is to open a thorough and honest dialogue with your doctor.
Without a comprehensive medical test it’s impossible to know what your DHEA levels are. Just because you’re getting older doesn’t automatically mean you’re deficient. Remember, this is a natural substance — our bodies can produce more or less of it depending on our nutrient support, metabolism, hormonal balance, activity level and emotional state.
In fact, there are many studies that show you can improve your DHEA levels naturally by maintaining a body mass index of 19-25, getting adequate rest and exposure to sunlight, exercising regularly (including sexual activity), and cultivating more joy in your life.
As with all things concerning your body, your mind, and your health, I hope you’ll learn as much as you can about yourself and find a medical practitioner you can talk openly with. DHEA for women should never be taken casually or unsupervised, but its benefits are real for the women who need it — as are the physiological benefits of cultivating joy. I encourage you to embrace the possibilities inherent in both!