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DHEA, dehydroepiandrosterone, is the most prevalent and one of the most essential hormones in human health. Of considerable interest is the fact that most other animals do not have significant levels of DHEA. Thus when we see the striking number of illnesses in which there are low levels of both DHEA and magnesium, a possible connection between these essential chemicals begins to appear. Even a 10 percent increase in DHEA levels is associated with a 48% decrease in mortality from all causes. Unfortunately, the majority of Americans lose 80 to 90% of their optimal levels of DHEA between ages thirty and eighty.
In fact, it is commonly reported that decreasing DHEA levels are inevitable with aging. There can be healthy, active eighty-year-olds with optimal DHEA levels and stressed-out thirty-year-olds with low or deficient levels of DHEA. With few exceptions, low or deficient DHEA is found in every illness. Note the frequent overlap of this discussion with that of magnesium. Most critically, DHEA blocks carcinogenesis and retards aging, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even obesity. Interestingly, USA Today on September 5, 1996 carried a cover story, “DHEA: Is This Hormone the Fountain of Youth?” And The Sciences in its September/October 1995 issue carried an article, “Forever Young.”
The DHEA story begins with cholesterol, the foundation chemical for brain, nerve tissue, and hormones. Of all natural biochemicals, cholesterol is the most essential and most common. It is unfortunate that medicine has maligned this critical and beneficial essence of life chemical. It is not cholesterol that is a problem. Metabolic errors and/or stress induced dysfunction raise cholesterol. In fact, not only can we not live without cholesterol, we make cholesterol even without eating it! Ten minutes of stress will cause the body to produce more cholesterol than you get from an egg.
Actually eggs are one of the best of all foods as the cholesterol in eggs comes with an ideal emulsifier, lecithin. Except in the very rare condition of familial hypercholesterolemia, the blood level of cholesterol remains normal, (that is, below 200 units) except when total stress produces blocks to the usual metabolic pathways in which cholesterol is used to make various healthy homeostatic (balancing) hormones. In general, under stress, testosterone, estrogen, and even thyroid hormones decrease while cholesterol increases. Unfortunately, one of the normal stress modulators, DHEA, is also blocked when stress exceeds the body’s ability to compensate.
One of the significant factors in that normal compensatory mechanism is magnesium. As noted, magnesium is critical in stabilizing cellular membrane electrical charge. Physical inactivity, obesity, anger, anxiety, depression, pollution, electromagnetic excess, and deficiency of any essential nutrient may lead in this way to hypercholesterolemia and DHEA depletion. DHEA is produced in the adrenal glands in both men and women; men produce about one-third more than women as they also produce DHEA in the testes. The core of the adrenals, the cortex, produces cortisol, androgens, aldosterone, and small amounts of estrogen. Interestingly, aldosterone, a major regulator of water, is regulated significantly by potassium, a primarily intracellular mineral, as is magnesium.
Cholesterol is connected in the adrenal cortex to pregnenolone, which can then be converted into progesterone, DHEA, and androstenedione, the latter made famous in 1998 by baseball player, Mark McGwire. For unknown reasons, much of the DHEA is bound to a sulfate molecule, rendering it relatively inactive. DHEA and androstenedione can be converted into testosterone. Progesterone can also be converted into testosterone. Progesterone can also be converted into cortisone and aldosterone. Actually only 5 percent of total male testosterone is derived from adrenal androstenedione; the rest from the testes. On the other hand, two-thirds of female testosterone is derived from adrenal androstenedione, the rest is produced in the ovaries.
In brief summary, DHEA counterbalances the effects of cortisone; inhibits glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase important in glucose metabolism; inhibits the pentose shunt and ornithine decarboxylase (perhaps important in growth hormone regulation); blocks the potassium channel (perhaps important in maintaining intracellular magnesium); and inhibits cytokineses, which makes it anti-inflammatory. It lowers cholesterol and enhances immune function; it is also an antioxidant. DHEA is a major marker for age and health. Its major effect in a coping person is anti-stress, meaning that the increased cortisone produced by stress is subsequently normally brought back down to baseline by a rise in DHEA.
DHEA similarly has anti-diabetic action, as cortisol raises blood sugar and either spares or enhances effects of insulin. DHEA protects against both immune and autoimmune diseases; it enhances immune function protecting against cancer. It has significant anti-obesity effects, perhaps related to its down-regulation of the stress response. Interestingly, high animal fat diets and obesity lead to low levels of DHEA. Additionally DHEA is intimately related to thyroid function – primary thyroid disease, especially low thyroid production, leads to low DHEA levels. Low levels Of DHEA are found in women up to nine years before development of breast cancer.
Men also have low DHEA levels several years prior to development of prostate cancer. Insulin, blood sugar, and cortisone all cause increased secretion of DHEA into urine. Prolonged stress, which may raise insulin, blood sugar and cortisol, eventually leads to low DHEA blood levels. Many clinical studies of DHEA are suspect as most laboratories are notoriously inaccurate. Of the six labs where we sent three samples of the same blood from up to ten patients, only one lab was accurate. Most labs, for the same blood, gave values 50 to 300 percent different! Reference labs may measure DHEA sulfate levels more accurately but at least four separate reports suggest that DHEA-S is not clinically as useful as DHEA. For instance, ACTH ordinarily increases DHEA but not necessarily DHEA-S.
Similarly in 108 seropositive HIV men with low CD4 lymphocytes, DHEA was predictive of disease progression but DHEA-S was not. Low levels of DHEA have been reported in AIDS, Alzheimer’s, many types of cancer, coronary artery disease, depression, diabetes hypertension, lupus erythematosus, multiple sclerosis, pemphigus, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, and viral infections. Indeed the only illnesses in which DHEA may be normal are occasionally in schizophrenia and early in alcoholism and panic attacks. DHEA is the major reflector of stress reserves or overall health. It shows us the level of Youth and Longevity.
Blood level of DHEA-S measured as nanograms per deciliter
|Serious Deficiency||Worrisome Low||Fair||Good||Excellent|
About 50 percent of Americans have poor to fair level and the other 50 percent are deficient. It is likely that six hours or more of airplane travel will at least temporarily deplete DHEA. Some research suggests that DHEA deficiency blocks progesterone, which decreases dramatically in women at menopause. If a woman is deficient in magnesium, supplementing it will support her in decreasing the chance of estrogen dominance. When men with low DHEA levels use natural progesterone cream one teaspoon twice a day, their DHEA levels increase.