You are familiar with testosterone’s role as an essential male sex hormone, but did you realize that testosterone couldn’t exist at all without a “parent hormone” called dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)?
DHEA is synthesized in the adrenal gland to help produce other hormones like estrogen and testosterone. If you are concerned about your hormone levels or trying to interpret your health problems as you age, DHEA could hold the answers.
What Is DHEA?
DHEA is a vital precursor hormone in the body. As a precursor, DHEA has very little biological effect of its own. Its influence on the body occurs when DHEA is converted into sex steroid hormones like testosterone and estrogen.
DHEA is mainly produced from cholesterol in the outer layer of the adrenal glands, through a small amount is also produced by the testes. After DHEA is released from the adrenal glands, it circulates through the bloodstream attached to sulphur to prevent breakdown.
Interest in DHEA as a supplement has grown over the years. It often described as a “super hormone” and “fountain of youth hormone”, but experts are still working to understand its anti-aging potential.
How Does DHEA Interact With the Body?
The brain uses a process called negative feedback to control how much DHEA is produced by the adrenal glands. The negative feedback control mechanism switches hormone production on and off based upon existing levels of that hormone in the bloodstream. When DHEA levels fall, the negative feedback loop increases DHEA production. WHen DHEA levels rise, the negative feedback loop stops DHEA production.
DHEA is then metabolized into the hormone androstenedione, another “stepping stone” in the production process of testosterone and estrogen. Scientists are still working to fully understand the role of DHEA in the body beyond testosterone and estrogen production. It is believed that DHEA could influence up to 150 different metabolic functions:
- Boosts production of natural growth hormones that build lean muscle mass
- Helps burn body fat
- Improves bone density
- Promotes heart health
- Controls cholesterol levels
- Regulates sex hormones testosterone and estrogen
- Supports cognitive function
- Improves sensitivity to insulin
As more research continues, we will gain a clearer picture of the true role of DHEA in the male body.
Signs of a DHEA Imbalance
Like so many other hormones, DHEA production changes over time. The hormone is produced in large quantities during pregnancy but fall by 80% or more after birth. DHEA levels don’t increase again until age 8 or 9 in boys, at which point they continue to increase until age 20. Levels then decline over the next 40 to 60 years until they are only at 20% of peak levels.
Excessively high or low levels of DHEA can cause specific symptoms and health issues.
Symptoms of High DHEA Levels
High DHEA levels occur more in women than men. Men are usually asymptomatic to elevated levels of DHEA, but it’s possible for excess androgens to convert into excess estrogens. If this occurs, men may experience symptoms of high estrogen levels, including increased breast tissue and weight gain.
Symptoms Low DHEA Levels
Since DHEA influences so many important body functions, a DHEA imbalance can trigger many different symptoms. It’s possible for low testosterone to be blamed for the following symptoms, when in reality the underlying problem is DHEA deficiency:
- Depression and anxiety
- Decreased sexual desire
- Weakened immune system
- Loss of muscle mass
- Dry skin and eyes
How to Test DHEA Levels
DHEA levels can be tested using a blood (serum) test. This is known as a DHEA-sulfate serum test. If the test reveals DHEA levels significantly higher or lower than the average, supplemental tests may be completed to determine the cause.
|Average Age of Male||DHEA Range mcg/dL|
|Newborn (<14 days)||11 – 120|
|11-15 years old||14 – 412|
|18-30 years old||105 – 728|
|31-40 years old||57 – 522|
|41-50 years old||34 – 395|
|51-60 years old||20 – 299|
|61 – 70 years old||12 – 227|
|>70 years old||6.6 – 162|
Abnormal DHEA levels may be a result of a few different disorders. High DHEA levels are associated with adrenal gland tumors and a genetic disorder called congenital adrenal hyperplasia. Low DHEA levels, on the other hand, are connected with adrenal gland disorders like adrenal insufficiency and Addison’s disease.
How to Balance DHEA Levels Naturally
Men are most likely to experience DHEA deficiency due to the natural effects of aging. There are a number of methods known to naturally balance DHEA levels. Sufficient DHEA production can improve overall wellness and support better sexual health.
Make Healthy Lifestyle Changes
Many common lifestyle habits are actually silent hormone killers. If you have a sedentary lifestyle, struggle with chronic stress, or rarely get high quality sleep, your hormone levels could be declining as a result. One of the easiest ways to naturally boost your DHEA levels- and other hormone levels as a result- is to improve your lifestyle habits.
Incorporate more physical activity into your routine, adopt stress management techniques, and establish a consistent sleep schedule. These better habits will reduce cortisol levels and give your body the support it needs to increase and maintain DHEA production.
Control Your Blood Sugar
Taking control of your blood sugar is important to your health for a variety of reasons, but it also influences DHEA levels in your body. When too much glucose accumulates in your blood, it triggers the release of insulin from the pancreas. Insulin brings glucose under control, but it also decreases the production of DHEA. Furthermore, continually high glucose levels place stress on the adrenal glands and slow the healthy production of DHEA.
You can avoid these problems simply by getting your blood sugar under control:
- Swap high-sugar foods for choices high in fiber and healthy fats
- Avoid beverages like soda and juice
- Eat small meals and nutritious snacks throughout the day
The Bottom Line
DHEA is a crucial precursor hormone in the body. It influences a range of body functions and directly impacts testosterone and estrogen production. Testing and optimizing DHEA levels is an essential step in the process of improving a male’s health and wellness.