If you ever decided to sit down and learn all about your hormones, you will quickly discover that hormones are not always easily figured out. They are made from multiple areas of the body, the names can change, and they perform many functions. Men and women have similar hormones, but they are in different quantities at different times in their lives. It might be easy to think that estrogen or testosterone is the most prevalent hormone for you (depending on your gender), but in reality, the most common hormone is Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). Understanding DHEA and hormones are the crucial foundation for all of the hormones. Confused? Don’t be, here are five things to help you understand DHEA and hormones.
1. DHEA and Hormones – What are they?
The post office has delivery personnel, restaurants have waiters that bring you your food, and your body has hormones that serve as messengers to coordinate and control the activities of your body. When a hormone is produced, it serves as a key to a locked door. Once the hormone reaches the door, it locks onto the receptor site and transmits the message. Sometimes it can be a location-specific message, such as when the ovaries are signaled to mature and release an egg, or it can be an entire body command such as the growth of cells, changing the heart rate, or producing insulin to metabolize the food that the waiter brought you.
In regards to DHEA and hormones, this hormone is the most prevalent one in the body, and it is produced by the adrenal glands. Sitting on top of the kidneys and shaped like mini pyramids, the adrenal glands are the small, but powerful makers of DHEA and their ability to make this hormone is dependent on many factors.
DHEA assists to make testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, and corticosteroids. When you are in your 20’s versus 60 yrs of age, you have 80-90% more DHEA and hormones in your body.
Cholesterol is often thought to be an unwanted thing in your body, but surprisingly enough, cholesterol is the raw ingredient that hormones are made from in the adrenal glands. Steroids, specifically, are formed first, and then they are converted into hormones. The big four (testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, and corticosteroids) have a similar based molecular structure and are able to work perfectly together.
2. Who should be taking DHEA?
Women typically are the ones who take DHEA and hormone replacement therapies. This is because during early and late menopausal years their hormones drop significantly and (often) in drastic, sudden ways. Some of the things that DHEA and hormones can help with is feeling good, increasing energy levels, positive moods (instead of moodiness), and improving sexual libido.
Typically, supplementation starts in your 40’s, but if you are struggling with decreased energy levels, some physicians may recommend that you start it in your middle 30’s. It is also important to remember that those with Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome might not do well but might actually be overstimulated from taking this hormone and it could backfire. Before starting DHEA and hormones, it is recommended that a baseline level is established and you see a true specialist who knows what is going on in your whole body rather than just than someone who would just treat your labs.
Pregnenolone assists the body in making DHEA, and it is another hormone therapy that is becoming more popular. Researchers are finding that when it is combined with DHEA, in low doses, that women feel better with an improved sense of well-being. Men, however, may not respond to this combination as they are less hormone sensitive than women. For men, they may want to speak to their physician about other hormone supplements.
It is unknown how long DHEA can be taken; no long-term studies have been done to show whether years of supplementation is helpful. But as life, in general, teaches so well, moderation is always best instead of overdoing it.
3. Why should you take DHEA
You should take DHEA and hormones only if your physician wants you to do so. This is not a fad diet or supplement that can be taken carelessly. It must just be done under the proper supervision.
When considering DHEA and hormones, the easiest way to understand it is to think of it as an anti-aging drug. In animal studies, these have been found to be to be helpful against obesity, stress, cancer, auto-immune disease, and even infectious diseases. DHEA and hormones may also help the brain to function better. Studies have shown that the brain contains six times the DHEA hormones than compared to the rest of the body.
Like all medications, DHEA can interact with the medicines that you may be taking. It has been found to be a mood elevator and does have the ability to interact with anti-depressants. Cholesterol-lowering medications and blood thinners can also interact synergistically. This means that they both work in similar ways to produce an even stronger reaction. Weight loss supplements and pills may also interfere with DHEA because it can reduce your appetite. Because DHEA can even lower cholesterol and thin your blood out, it is essential that you check with your doctor first before starting this supplement
4. DHEA’s role in the NEM Stress Response
As noted earlier, DHEA and hormones can have a positive effect on a person’s life. This sense of well-being is in contrast to the stress that most people deal with on a daily basis. Responding to stress appropriately is the role of the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response. The NEM Stress Response is also controlled by the adrenal glands, and it works via six unique pathways or circuits. These are the hormone, bioenergetics, detoxification, inflammation, cardionomic, neuroaffect circuits. When considering DHEA and hormones, the hormonal circuit is specifically involved.
In women, the hormonal circuit is seen through the ovarian-adrenal-thyroid axis (OAT), and in men, it is seen as at the adrenal-thyroid (AT) axis. If at any time in the axis, there is a downregulation (or something not working right) the entire axis will attempt to compensate to keep the hormonal circuit flowing properly. This is seen most often in Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS). Imbalances of hormones, for example, in the adrenal glands not only affects how the body responds to the stressors but it eventually the ovaries are compromised. Menstrual cycles become irregular. Estrogen and progesterone levels change into estrogen dominance. This is seen as too much estrogen in the body, and not enough progesterone to balance it out. Physical symptoms of an imbalance in the OAT or AT axis can be seen as:
- Weight gain
- Joint pain
- Intolerance of exercise
- Blood Sugar instability
- Dry skin
- Slow metabolism
- Pre-Menstrual disorders (women)
- Irregular menstrual cycles (women)
- Breast Cysts (women)
- Increase of weight and fat accumulation at the waist
Surprisingly, even women who have had their ovaries removed through an oophorectomy or a complete hysterectomy can still have OAT imbalances because estrogen can also be produced by adrenal glands and fat cells.
Other concerns about the hormonal circuit are the vagueness of some of the symptoms. If you were to come to your physician with joint pain and insomnia, figuring out the root cause of these symptoms can be very difficult. Initially, most physicians would address joint pain from an exercise or recent injury standpoint, not looking at it from a possible hormonal imbalance. Yes, all avenues must be explored and ruled out, but this is why it is important to have a healthcare provider who is trained in hormonal imbalances.
Carefully controlled by the adrenal glands is the neurological system. The ever-fluctuating hormones that a woman can experience can affect her mood. Men too are affected by changing hormones although it is not as easily seen as with women. Epinephrine and Norepinephrine are two hormones that are responsible for brain support and energy. Epinephrine is most commonly associated with the fight-or-flight response that is felt when you nearly miss hitting another car in an accident. Equally important, is the opposite hormone, which is called Norepinephrine. This is a down-regulator hormone. It attempts to get the body back into homeostasis (normal mode). Without enough norepinephrine, mental symptoms can be seen. These include:
- Tired and wired
- Brain fog
- Sleep disturbances
This is due to the low levels of DHEA and hormones such as cortisol and testosterone, which can also be traced back to adrenal fatigue or reduced adrenal function. Just like when you haven’t slept for many hours, you do not work at your peak. The body when overly stressed is not making the right hormones in the right quantities either.
The brain is typically separated from the body by a powerful barrier. The blood-brain barrier keeps many harmful toxins and chemicals out of there to protect the body’s most vital functions. Unfortunately, the brain attracts fat-soluble molecules because it is lipophilic. Some of these molecules are steroidal hormones. If too many steroidal hormones are not appropriately metabolized with the excess waste removed, a toxic buildup can occur. This buildup can present itself as the above noted mental symptoms.
Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome: An Explanation
AFS is not usually a condition that one moment it is there, and the next is full-blown. Although it can be slow in its onset, severe physical and emotional occurrences can speed up its progression. These occurrences could be a death in the family, a painful divorce, a loss of work, or a sudden diagnosis of cancer with subsequent aggressive therapies. For most people, it shows up over a timespan of ten years.
The NEM Stress Response attempts to prevent the progression of AFS, but when it begins to be overstressed and undernourished, symptoms can start to appear.
Though each person’s response is different, the four steps of AFS typically are seen as a worsening process. Initial symptoms can be fatigue and tiredness that is easily overlooked; a person may try to drink more coffee or caffeine-based products to help them feel more alert. Though the caffeine stimulation can help, it does not address the real problem. AFS can then show up as mild digestion issues for a while and then turn into food allergies and unusual weight gain. Without proper care, AFS can digress into complete exhaustion and inability to take care of one’s self because the body cannot make the right hormones anymore.
5. Should DHEA and hormones be taken by everyone over 40?
Only your physician can answer this question. DHEA and hormones therapy is an individual protocol and not something that should be decided without weighing all the pros and cons. Supplementation may begin in the mid-30’s and continue for several years afterward. Depending on what stage of Adrenal Fatigue you’re at, there is time and use for DHEA. Not everybody can tolerate DHEA due to it’s stimulating properties, so it’s very important to know whether your body is able to tolerate it or not by going slow.
DHEA and hormones are very important to your well-being and physical health. Hormones act as delivery messengers to control the body’s actions internally and externally. DHEA is made from cholesterol by the adrenal glands, which also makes many other hormones (directly or indirectly) such as testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, and corticosteroids. Your doctor may encourage you to supplement with DHEA; specifically, women are seen as those who could benefit from additional hormones. This is due to the fact that menopause dramatically alters a woman’s ability to produce hormones that assist in wellbeing. Men also may notice positive benefits from DHEA, but the results may not show as quickly.
The decreased levels of DHEA can interfere with the NEM Stress Response and how the body responds to stressful events. As seen in the OAT axis, if just one area becomes off balance, the entire body suffers. This can be seen through menstrual irregularities, weight gain, mental instability, and sleep disturbances. Although the brain is typically protected from foreign invaders, the steroids and hormones that are not appropriately metabolized can leave a person feeling foggy and have difficulty thinking. It is important to realize that AFS can be overlooked easily due to the vagueness of the symptoms, but if you are struggling with issues, you should be assessed by your physician for possible hormonal imbalances.
© Copyright 2012-2019 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
Dr. Lam’s Key Question
Should DHEA and hormones be taken by everyone over 40?
DHEA and hormones therapy is an individual suggestion and not something that should be decided without weighing all the pro’s and con’s. Note that there is some use for DHEA depending on your body’s constitution and what stage of Adrenal Fatigue you’re in. Only your physician can answer this question properly.