Because testosterone is the major circulating androgen in men (as described previously), the impact of DHEA on the male libido may not be very important. In women, however, DHEA is a major source of both estrogens and testosterone and might be expected to have a bigger influence on libido. The results of a 12-week study involving postmenopausal women who were given daily doses of DHEA intravaginally showed rapid and efficient improvements in sexual function and vaginal atrophy, without changes in their serum sex steroid levels.
Given the link between DHEA and sex hormones, the role that it plays in menopause and its many symptoms have been examined, with interesting results. In one study of twenty postmenopausal women who took 25 mg DHEA daily for twelve months, the results were significant. These women showed progressive increases in their levels of testosterone, estradiol, estrone, progesterone, and growth hormone with corresponding improvements in symptoms.
Another study involving postmenopausal women, but with the administration to the skin, demonstrated a tendency to create more androgen than estrogens from DHEA, with the transformation effects diminishing with age.
While more study clearly is required, Dr. Alan Gaby and others suggest that DHEA may be an effective treatment for the undesirable symptoms associated with menopause.
Deterioration and thinning of the bones is a hallmark of osteoporosis. A major cause of bone thinning may be the unrelenting levels of high cortisol induced by stress— perhaps because it depletes DHEA. By restoring balance, this detrimental effect on bones may be forestalled. Additionally, as a precursor to both testosterone and estrogens, DHEA can help supply the hormones needed to both stimulate new bone-cell formation and break down old bone. A 15-year study suggests that bone mineral density may be directly related to circulating DHEA levels.
Because declining DHEA levels seem to correlate with an increased incidence of heart disease, scientists are interested in determining how this hormone might be cardioprotective. For instance, DHEA supplementation seems to decrease the rate of platelet aggregation (formation of blood clots), which could lead to fewer cases of stroke.
Heart disease is also linked in part to increased inflammation, which involves numerous molecules called cytokines. DHEA lowers two of the cytokines that stimulate the inflammatory process, sometimes even to the point of attacking healthy tissue. It also appears that DHEA has an antioxidant effect and may lower LDL cholesterol, thereby protecting the arteries.
As we age, our skin thins and is more inclined to wrinkle and crease. The aging process is also characterized by the production of skin enzymes that break down collagen. Collagen is critical for the normal support of the skin’s structure, and it appears that DHEA helps maintain collagen levels. DHEA supplementation increases color, tone, thickness, and hydration of the skin.
Dry Eye Syndrome
Another downside of aging is the increased incidence of dry eye syndrome, a condition that causes irritated, red, and itchy eyes. The syndrome seems to be more prevalent in women, especially once they start perimenopause.
One antidote for dry eyes is the use of over-the-counter or prescription eye drops designed to lubricate eyes. However, these artificial tears often fail to provide relief because they lack some of the natural lipids produced by specialized sebaceous glands in the eye. Because DHEA has been shown to stimulate sebaceous glands, an eye drop containing DHEA was developed and used to treat women suffering from dry eye syndrome. These women reported less eye irritation and the improved production of natural tears.
DHEA is also believed to significantly improve mood and emotional stability. In his book, Dr. Shealy remarks “We have never seen a depressed patient with optimal levels of DHEA. And no one we’ve seen with optimal levels of DHEA is depressed.”
A study in England confirmed his observation by demonstrating that the lower the levels of DHEA in a group of depressed patients, the more severe their depression. The patients with low DHEA levels also exhibited high cortisol levels.
Memory and Cognition
It is well accepted that cognitive function—which includes memory, reaction time, and learning ability— may progressively decline as we age. This decline is linked to high cortisol levels, which damage neural cells in the brain. DHEA shows great promise as it appears to protect the brain from the damage induced by high cortisol levels.
Given what we now know, we may want to start paying more attention to DHEA levels because they relate to so many aspects of our overall health. For starters, reducing stress in our lives can improve DHEA levels naturally. Drinking a cup of coffee each morning may boost levels because of a link to caffeine. On the other hand, taking oral contraceptives lowers DHEA levels; so alternative forms of birth control may be a consideration. Finally, as with other bioidentical hormone therapies, DHEA levels can be improved by supplementation. However, it is important to check with a healthcare practitioner for evaluation and guidance for adequate dosing before trying any supplementation.
This amazing hormone has proven to be highly versatile and intimately involved with our ability to thrive and survive. With ongoing research, and medical practitioners continuing to use and monitor DHEA in their patient practices, we will continue to learn more about the role of this important hormone and its potential effects on many aspects of our general health.