What exactly is DHEA?
And can this bio-identical hormone help improve your mood and anxiety?!
That is what we are going to find out today!
What is DHEA?
Dehydroepiandrosterone (a.k.a DHEA) is a steroid hormone produced naturally in the body.
Here it is:
Like all other hormones in the body, DHEA is synthesized from the precursor cholesterol…
…you know, the “bad stuff” found in eggs.
Most of the circulating DHEA and DHEAS in your bloodstream is produced by your adrenal glands (a pair of small endocrine gland sitting atop your kidneys), and a smaller amount is made by the testes and ovaries.
(*DHEAS is the sulfated storage form of DHEA.)
Okay, what does DHEA do?
DHEA acts as a weak androgen (male hormone) in the body primarily through being converted into other more powerful hormones!
As you can see in the picture below, DHEA is a precursor hormone for many other hormones such as androstenedione, testosterone, dihydrotesterone, estrogen, etc.
In addition, DHEA plays the role as an important neurosteroid (meaning it is biosynthesized in the brain) and has an impact on your behaviour, cognition and mood!
One of DHEA’s most important function is to protect the body and brain against stress; it can be thought of as a pro-resilience or anti-stress hormone.
Let’s look that works in more detail:
How DHEA Protects The Body Against Stress (Cortisol)
What happens when you get stressed out or anxious?
In the face of any perceived threat, your adrenal glands start pumping out a bunch of stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline) into the bloodstream!
These stress hormones circulating throughout the body trigger ‘fight-or-flight’ symptoms such as:
- increase in heart rate
- faster breathing
- feeling tense, anxious or trembling
- dry mouth
- “bad butterflies” in the stomach
This is the body’s natural physiological response to any stressful or dangerous situation. It helps you to either fight or flee from any threat and deal with a difficult situation.
Cortisol and adrenaline are so-called catabolic hormones – meaning they break down things to make energy available for the brain and muscles.
This is great in the short-run if you need to run away from a mountain lion!
However it is not so great in the long-term.
Prolonged stress (and chronically elevated cortisol) means you are constantly breaking down your body – which is bad news for your physical and mental well-being.
Too much cortisol – sometimes referred to as a ‘hyperactive HPA axis’ – wreaks havoc on the body and can cause, among other things, chronic inflammation/autoimmune diseases and psychological issues such as irritability and depression.
What does high cortisol feel like? One of the symptoms of elevated cortisol levels is “feeling on edge” or “tired but wired“. Like your body is all exhausted but your brain and nervous system is on edge. You may have experienced this after a particularly intense bout of exercise or after a day’s hard work.
The “DHEA To Cortisol Ratio”
So what does DHEA has to do with all of this?!
Well, you see…
DHEA and cortisol have a yin-yang kind of relationship with each other.
Studies show that in response to psychosocial stress, levels of the adrenal cortex hormones DHEA and DHEAS rise in the bloodstream!
Meaning, during an acute stress response both cortisol and DHEA are released from the adrenal glands:
We know that cortisol is a catabolic stress hormone…
So, here’s the bottomline:
DHEA is thought to play a protective role during stress and helps to mitigate the harmful effects of unopposed stress/cortisol.
You can also think of DHEA as your body’s natural stress buffering hormone.
How Chronic Stress Causes Low DHEA Levels
As illustrated in the picture above, our natural levels of DHEAS peak somewhere around the age of 2o-3o years, and then slowly decline as we get older.
So at least in theory, a young healthy person should have no need for any supplemental DHEA…
However that is not always the case!
If you have gone through a period of sickness and/or prolonged, severe emotional stress, there is a risk you may be running a little low on DHEA.
As we discussed previously, DHEAS increases during stressful periods…
…but as stress becomes chronic, the adrenal glands lose their ability to produce these stress buffering hormones.
The result of prolonged stress is a low DHEA-cortisol ratio (which is bad).
Here are couple studies proving my point:
- DHEAS levels are found to be low in chronic inflammatory diseases.
- Stressed individuals have lower levels of DHEAS compared to non-stressed individuals…
- And according to this study the high stress group produced 4o% less DHEA-S in response to an acute psychosocial stress versus the low stress group.
Considering the many important anti-stress effects of DHEA, having low levels of this hormone is no bueno.
It makes you more susceptible to the harmful impact of stress → you become more anxious and stressed out, moody and irritable, and so on…
That is to say, low DHEAS is bit of a vicious negative cycle!
What Are The Symptoms of Low DHEA?
Having low DHEA levels – or a low DHEA/cortisol ratio – can result in symptoms such as:
- fatigue and lack of energy
- crappy mood or mood swings
- low libido
- poor stress resilience (i.e any stress is utterly exhausting or causes exaggerated ‘fight-or-flight’ symptoms)
- low muscle mass and bone mass
- poor immune function
- just overall not feeling good
Scientific Studies on How DHEA Fights Depression And Anxiety
DHEA is super important for your energy levels, mood and sense of well-being.
When you don’t have enough DHEA…
…you will most likely feel terrible!
So, we know that depressed persons tend to have low DHEA and DHEAS levels.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that low DHEA is causing the depression – it could just be that that these individuals are suffering from chronic stress.
… as it turns out, supplementing with DHEA does seem to fix the problem.
According to several large randomized, placebo-controlled studies, patients that receive DHEA as a treatment for depression see an improvement in their symptoms!
The authors of the paper above speculate that this may be a result of DHEA’s:
- anti-cortisol effect (we know from studies that taking 200 DHEA as a supplement reliably lowers cortisol levels in humans)
- and/or its role as an important neurosteroid (affecting levels of the neurotransmitter GABA)
- and/or by reducing inflammation in the body and brain.
And as mentioned earlier, DHEA gets metabolised to other important chemicals in the body and brain.
One study found that DHEA supplementation boosted levels of the neurosteroid androsterone which can also help explain the antidepressant properties of DHEA.
To put things into a nutshell:
If DHEAS is low, raising DHEAS levels back to normal through supplementation can alleviate depression/mood issues!
How DHEA Balances Emotional Responses
Here’s another really interesting study that looked at how DHEA affects different centers of the brain involved in emotion regulation.
DHEA supplementation was found to reduce activity in brain regions associated with generation of negative emotions (like the amygdala) while simultaneously increase activity in regions linked to regulatory control of emotion (the anterior cingulate cortex).
To put this in laymen’s terms:
DHEA makes your brain less likely to freak out over stuff and helps to calm down fear and anxiety!
Another study I dug up showed that chronic administration of DHEA to rats decreased self-administration of cocaine, so it could potentially be a valuable tool for helping with a drug addiction.
How To Boost Your DHEA Levels Naturally
Say you have gotten a blood test done and have confirmed low DHEAS levels – what can you do to boost your levels naturally?
As I mentioned in my ramblings above, DHEA suffers as a result of chronic stress.
Prolonged, high stress that is not resolved will really mess with your hormones.
Sometimes it’s simply a matter of removing sources of stress in your life and/or de-stressing on a regular basis – this will give your adrenal glands a needed break and DHEA levels can bounce back again!
Learning how to say no to things, to prioritize your own needs and set boundaries, can drastically reduce your stress (i.e cortisol) levels.
In fact, there has been a study done showing that individuals who went through a “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” program had higher levels of circulating DHEAS compared to the control group that didn’t get this treatment.
So it’s not just about getting rid of stress in your life…
…it’s about how you perceive stressful situations, and having tools in your toolkit that can help you let go of negative thoughts.
If you spend all day long thinking about upsetting things, or how things are going to go wrong in the future, you are going to be really stressed out and have chronically elevated cortisol levels!
Mindfulness is the antidote to this endless worrying and rumination.
(In my opinion mindfulness should actually be called mindlessness, because it’s about not having your mind filled with thoughts.)
Here are just a couple examples of how to de-stress and relax (and not worry and ruminate on negative thoughts):
- Pay attention to whatever is right in front you by looking, feeling and listening. You can do this when you’re doing dishes, walking the dog, gardening, etc. When you pay FULL attention to whatever you are doing, you are not thinking or worrying anymore, which is very nice and relaxing! Learning how to connect with the present moment, here and now, gives your mind peace.
- Some kind of meditation practice
- QUITTING SOCIAL MEDIA (just 1 week off all social media improves anxiety, well-being, and depression according to this study!)
- Turn off the news!
- Taking relaxing naps
- Doing something meaningful, or something that excites you
- Walks in nature
- Playing music
- Being with fun people
Importance of Daily Habits
To make things really simple:
It is your actions, or daily habits, that influence your hormones (cortisol, DHEA, thyroid, estrogen, testosterone, etc.)
Bad habits = “bad” hormones.
Good habits = healthy hormones!
*Barring any endocrine disorders, i.e your hormonal axes are intact and functioning properly.
De-stressing, a good diet (regular meals to balance your blood sugars), regular exercise (doesn’t have to be anything strenuous, walks in nature are fine!), good sleep are natural ways of boosting your DHEAS levels!
And try to be out in the bright hours of the day if you can (UVB exposure increases skin steroid synthesis.)
Addressing poor gut health or any chronic inflammatory/disease state is also important.
For more in-depth information on diet, sleep, how to de-stress, and so on and so forth – check out this article!
How To Supplement With DHEA
I don’t recommend everyone to just willy-nilly supplement bio-identical hormones.
First you would want to get a full panel blood test done to check your natural hormone levels and rule out any potential nutritional deficiencies/imbalances. Also, this is something you would want to discuss with your doctor.
Not every anxious or depressed individual has low DHEA levels, and in that case it won’t help much, if at all.
And if the cause of your low DHEAS is chronic stress and poor lifestyle habits, then taking a supplement obviously won’t fix those issues!
Having that said…
For older people, or anyone who has gone through a boatload of stress, DHEA supplementation can be super helpful.
It is an amazing tool that can help you recover from a chronically stressed state and boost energy levels and mood, lower cortisol levels and increase your stress resilience.
How Much DHEA Should You Take for Anxiety or Depression?
Taking excessively large doses of DHEA can theoretically cause it to get converted into estrogen, which is not a good thing.
However there have been zero serious side effects reported from DHEA supplementation (5o+ mg) in studies done on humans lasting 1-2 years. The most common side effect from taking too much is that you get acne and oily skin.
In my opinion a more physiological dosse of 5-15 mg spread out through the day – mimicking the body’s own natural production – is safer and more effective.
A person would use DHEA either as a cream, applied topically on your skin, or orally as a pill.
I have personally found that 5 mg of DHEA taken in the morning is awesome for making me feel more grounded, calm and stress resilient. If something stressful pops up I can deal with it better and not freak out as much.
Conclusion – DHEA Is Amazing *For Some Individuals
Not to sound like a broken record, but DHEA supplementation can be amazingly beneficial for a chronically stressed or sick individual.
A healthy/young/not-sick individual probably doesn’t need to take any exogenous DHEA because she or he already has optimal levels.
So you have to use your own judgement here, and of course consult with your doctor beforehand!
Please share this with anyone that might find it helpful!
Cheers guys! 🙂