DHEA, a natural steroid and precursor hormone produced by the adrenals, has been shown to provide several anti-aging benefits, and research suggests DHEA may also improve mid-life onset depression in people who don’t respond to first line depression therapies, as well as improve resilience to stress.
DHEA Improves Stress Resilience
DHEA levels tend to peak around age 20 and then gradually decline with only about 20 percent circulating in the body by age 70.
Referred to as the “mother hormone,” DHEA is a precursor to all major sex hormones: estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone with its molecular structure closely related to testosterone, according to Marcelle Pick, Ob & Gyn NP for Women in Balance.org in an article on DHEA. While more research needs to be conducted to understand DHEA’s role in regulating other hormones, there is evidence DHEA may improve depression and the ability to cope with stress in some people.
“It’s likely that DHEA and adrenal function are related to neurotransmitter-release rates, based on the mood elevation our patients report after just two weeks of adrenal support.” Marcelle Pick.
A report by ScienceDaily cites a study conducted by Yale University and the VA National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder where researchers examined the biological mechanisms that contribute to a person’s level of resilience when under extreme stress, such as that experienced by soldiers, police, and firefighters.
Researchers worked closely with Special Forces Underwater Warfare Operations Center to study special operations soldiers enrolled in the military Combat Diver Qualification Course (CDQC). Results showed that soldiers with higher levels of DHEA did better during the final underwater navigation exam than those with less DHEA.
The ability to navigate underwater relies on an area of the brain called the hippocampus that is sensitive to the negative effects of stress. Dr. Charles A. Morgan, a researcher on the study said, “Animal studies have shown that DHEA buffers against stress, in part, by modulating receptors in this region of the brain. These findings are important in understanding why and how soldiers may differ in their ability to tolerate stress and also raise the possibility that, in the future, compounds like DHEA might be used to protect military personnel from the negative impact of operational stress.”
DHEA and Mid-Life Depression
In addition to adrenal synthesis, evidence also indicates that DHEA and DHEAS are synthesized in the brain, further suggesting a role of these hormones in brain function and development.
A study published in the February 2005 issue of The Archives of General Psychiatry found that 23 subjects in a study on DHEA and depression had a 50 percent or more improvement on their depression rating scale.
Researchers studied 23 men and 23 women aged 45 to 65 with midlife onset major or minor depression of moderate severity. Six weeks of DHEA treatment contributed to significant improvements in depression and sexual functioning compared to the subjects’ baseline scores and the placebo subjects.
Peter J. Schmidt, M.D., and his colleagues from the Behavioral Endocrinology Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health, Rockville, Md. wrote, “At present, there are no predictors of response, and with a 50 percent response rate one would obviously select more reliable first-line treatments for this condition. However, in the 50 percent of depressed outpatients who do not respond to first-line antidepressant treatment, or in those unwilling to take traditional antidepressants, DHEA may have a useful role in the treatment of mild to moderately severe midlife-onset major and minor depression.”
Owen Wolkowitz, M.D. with the Department of Psychiatry at the University of San Francisco, has extensively researched the effects of stress and stress hormones on the brain and behavior, as well as the identification of mechanisms underlying depression, including DHEA’s role as an antidepressant in middle-aged and older individuals. Wolkowitz’s research has “consistently shown that DHEA supplementation improves mood [in these groups].”
DHEA Dosing and Safety
Because hormones are extremely powerful chemicals, people considering supplementing with DHEA should have their baseline and subsequent levels evaluated by a physician. The National Institute of Health (NIH) indicates there is sufficient evidence for the use of DHEA for adrenal insufficiency, depression, induction of labor, and systemic lupus erythematosus. The NIH provides their recommendation for dosing, safety and side effects.
“Many of the DHEA supplements I see at my local store have very high dosages — way too high for most women (often as much as 20 times what I start my patients on!). While there’s no way to tell how much of that you might actually absorb, I think it’s especially unwise to experiment with DHEA at these levels without medical supervision.” Marcelle Pick.
There is little research on the long-term effects of DHEA. DHEA may however, cause higher than normal levels of androgens and estrogens in some, and therefore increase the risk of prostate, breast, ovarian, and other hormone-sensitive cancers.
Washington University School Of Medicine (2004, November 17). Abdominal Fat Decreases, Insulin Action Improves When Elderly Take Hormone. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 24, 2009, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/11/04111623
Charles A. Morgan III et al. Relationships Among Plasma Dehydroepiandrosterone and Dehydroepiandrosterone Sulfate, Cortisol, Symptoms of Dissociation, and Objective Performance in Humans Exposed to Underwater Navigation Stress. Biological Psychiatry, Volume 66, Issue 4 (August 15, 2009)
Peter J. Schmidt, et al., “Dehydroepiandrosterone Monotherapy in Midlife-Onset Major and Minor Depression,” Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2005;62:154-162.
Pick, Marcelle, Ob & Gyn NP, “Dhea and the Adrenal Glands.” Women to Women.org, Accessed September 13th, 2011.
Wolkowitz OM, et al,”Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) treatment of depression,”Biol Psychiatry. 1997 Feb 1;41(3):311-8.Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine 94143-0984, USA.
A few years ago I consulted with a hormone and mood specialist, a former Ob/Gyn who told me after years of working in her field she grew tired of women receiving inadequate or ineffective treatment for a number of hormone-brain-endocrine changes, including peri and full menopause, PMS, anxiety, depression, etc.
In addition to answering a long questionnaire to measure my symptoms (the result of a pituitary disorder I have called Empty Sella Syndrome), the doctor ordered a saliva hormone and urine neurotransmitter test. The results indicated my DHEA levels were extremely low. Instead of prescribing her usual 5mg per day for women, (men can take higher levels) she recommended 10mg daily.
As someone who believes in becoming our own health manager, while it’s tempting to throw supplements at an issue and see if they work, it’s important to be very careful particularly with hormones, endocrine agents that impact a wide range of processes in the body and as a result, can have a cascading positive or negative affect.
“Without a comprehensive medical test it’s impossible to know what your DHEA levels are. Just because you’re getting older doesn’t automatically mean you’re deficient. Remember, this is a natural substance — our bodies can produce more or less of it depending on our nutrient support, metabolism, hormonal balance, activity level and emotional state.” Marcelle Pick.
Test, track and monitor your symptoms carefully under the supervision of a holistic (preferably) health care practitioner.
I reccomend ZRT labs for a number of key saliva and/or blood tests. You can order these online or with a prescription from your doctor.
Copyright Laura Owens. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.
Thanks for the information on the benefits of DHEA. I had no idea that it could actually affect the level of stress in someone and actually help with depression as well. My cousin has been dealing with some depression lately and she isn’t sure of what steps to take; I will be sure to show her this article.