Why DHEA is the ultimate stress management hormone and how to optimize levels

Mike Mahler 

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is an adrenal hormone and the ultimate stress management hormone. It supports a healthy immune system, adrenal health, insulin sensitivity, mitigates metabolic syndrome, improves bone health, and keeps excess stress hormones (cortisol) in check. Cortisol lowering effects of DHEA

DHEA and cortisol have an inverse relationship. When your cortisol levels are high DHEA levels are low. You may go through a period where you have high levels of both but eventually, you will crash and have depleted DHEA production and excess cortisol levels. To make matters worse the excess cortisol level can be heightened at night which in turn impedes sleep quality. You end up waking up tired, being tired all day, and then getting a burst of cortisol at night so you’re wired and can’t fall asleep. Many people in this situation will over-consume caffeine throughout the day which makes matters worse as caffeine increases cortisol.

According to elite strength coach Charles Poliquin, an optimal DHEA level is an important measurement of being anabolic LLA episode with Charles on DHEA. DHEA is testosterone’s big brother and protects it from the ravages of excess cortisol. When DHEA levels are optimal you’re more likely to have ideal levels of testosterone. When DHEA levels are low, excess cortisol will cause testosterone levels to plummet. This is why my Aggressive Strength Testosterone Booster includes Sensoril® Ashwagandha which has been shown to increase DHEA and lower cortisol. As a result, it supports testosterone production and is an integral component in the overall formula. In a human clinical trial, serum cortisol levels decreased by 24.2% while serum DHEA levels increased by 32.2% in subjects taking Sensoril®. 

In the 1990s DHEA supplementation was marketed heavily as an over the counter potent testosterone booster and some companies even claimed taking supplemental DHEA was just as effective as exercise for losing weight. Of course, DHEA supplementation did not live up to such claims and DHEA was added to the heap of supplements that failed to live up to the hype. As a result, many failed to fully understand the importance of having optimal DHEA levels.

Increasing DHEA naturally or taking supplemental DHEA should be utilized for increasing DHEA levels alone not for what it may or may not do for testosterone levels. DHEA is a few metabolic steps away from testosterone and thus DHEA supplements are not the ideal option for increasing testosterone in men. Especially overweight men where any conversion is more likely to result in an increase in estrogen levels (estradiol and estrone) rather than testosterone. Why an estrogen blocker such EC is a must when taking DHEA supplementation.  Interestingly, DHEA supplementation can increase testosterone levels greatly among female users as the adrenals are the main source of testosterone production for women. Therefore, it may be a viable option for women with low testosterone levels but be careful as too high a dosage may result in unwanted side effects such as acne and facial hair.

Let’s emphasize what the benefits are of optimal DHEA levels. According to an article in Life Extension Magazine, clinical studies show the following benefits with dosages in the 15mg to 50mg range.

  • Decreases in visceral (belly) fat
  • Decreases in subcutaneous (under the skin) fat
  • Increases in insulin sensitivity of up to 30%
  • Decreases in overall insulin exposure (elevated insulin is associated with an increased risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and excessive inflammation)
  • Increases in protective HDL levels of nearly 12%
  • Decreases in dangerous LDL cholesterol of up to 11%
  • A decrease of almost 20% in plasma triglycerides
  • Increases in levels of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), a molecule that is vital to controlling blood sugar and other metabolic parameters
  • Dramatic improvement in physical and psychological well-being by 67% in men and 84% in women
  • Beneficial increases in estrogen levels, even without specific hormone replacement therapy for menopause; those changes may further help to protect postmenopausal women from the elevated cardiovascular disease risks of menopause, and
  • No significant side effects.

The article also noted that by the time you are 70 years old, your DHEA levels will probably be 75-80% lower than they were when you were in your prime for hormone production (around 25) Another important point discussed is a study which conveyed that men with the lowest levels of DHEA were 67% more likely to die from a heart attack and 54% more likely to die from any cause.

For more info and study citations go to Life Extension Magazine article on DHEA

Another Life Extension magazine article revealed the importance of optimal DHEA levels for brain health:

Studies show, for example, that people with higher DHEA levels have less mental confusion, lower anxiety, and a less negative mood.

Other studies have found that DHEA levels (in its circulating, sulfated form, DHEA-S) correlate with overall cognitive function in men and women, and with better working memory, attention, and verbal fluency found in women with the highest levels.

Indeed, low DHEA levels are now associated with multiple brain-related disorders, including stress-induced clinical burnout, bipolar disorder, major depression, anxiety, and chronic fatigue syndrome.

More info at Life Extension Magazine article on DHEA and brain health

For fitness enthusiasts, there are also some strong potential upsides to DHEA supplementation (or increasing DHEA levels naturally)

  • The Taipei Physical Education College discovered that supplementation with 50 mg DHEA makes the hormonal response to interval training even better Click here
  • In a human study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology 50mg taken twice per day lowered levels of creatine kinase significantly which is an indicator of muscle damage. Participants taking DHEA in the study also reported a reduction in muscle soreness and pain. Click here
  • Another study suggests that a sign of optimal health is the large production of anabolic hormones such as IGF-1, DHEA, and testosterone Click here

On a completely different note, a study with DHEA cream supplementation on the face was shown to prevent an increase in wrinkles around the eyes. (On a side note I avoid excessive smiling to in turn avoid wrinkles around the eyes) In a four-month study wrinkles around the eyes increased in the control group but not in the group taking DHEA cream. The total increase in wrinkles around the eyes increased by 25% in the control group but not in the DHEA cream group. 

At this point, you may be ravenous to start a DHEA supplement regimen. Before you pull the trigger, let's look at some other options you can implement to ramp up your own production of DHEA. 

According to Dr. Carolyn Dean, author of The Magnesium Miracle, when magnesium is absorbed through the skin and underlying fatty tissues of the body it sets off many chain reactions, one of which ends in the production of DHEA. Check out the Aggressive Strength Recovery Oil loaded with magnesium, zinc, and msm

Charles Poliquin recommends short-term supplementation of licorice to improve the pathway of Pregnenolone conversion into DHEA instead of cortisol. If you wake up tired and are wired at night you have low cortisol in the morning and high cortisol at night. Supplemental licorice will help flip to a more favorable cortisol curve. 7-10 days of Licorice Plus is a good option and something I implement a few times a year whenever I feel burned out.  1 tablet in the morning and afternoon will help reset your cortisol curve. Some alarmists recommend staying away from DHEA due to a study that revealed an increase in estrogen with licorice use. Of course the part they leave out is the study participants were menopausal women. Short-term use of licorice is unlikely to cause an increase in estrogen in men. Licorice Plus information

Shilajit which is in my adrenal energizer RED (also has ashwagandha, maca, and Rhodiola) has been shown to increase the concentration of testosterone, free testosterone, and DHEA

Men using 250mg of Shilajit two times per day experienced an increase in testosterone, free testosterone, and DHEA. What is interesting is LH and FSH did not increase (both signal the testes to increase testosterone production. Thus, the increase in T and DHEA was via a different mechanism. My guess is it had to do with a reduction in cortisol which would explain the increase in DHEA which in turn will lower cortisol and protect testosterone levels. Shilajit and DHEA levels

Adding Tai Chi (Chi-kung and Yoga likely have similar benefits) to your regimen is also a good option to increase DHEA and lower cortisol. Tai Chi and cortisol

Finally getting off Facebook (can be applied to all forms of social media) lowers stress. A study revealed that cortisol levels went down when participants spent less time on Facebook. However, this benefit was offset by participants reporting life wasn’t as enjoyable without Facebook. Social media can be used in a beneficial manner to connect with interesting people and bring awareness to important causes. Furthermore, social media can be very instrumental in building a business. However, engaging in heated debates with trolls is a waste of time and will only increase cortisol levels and in turn lower DHEA. Thus, use social media judiciously and avoid any drama like the plague. 

My recommendation is to start with the lifestyle changes and a supplement regimen of RED,  Aggressive Strength Recovery Oil, and Licorice Plus before resorting to DHEA supplementation. Any long-term use of exogenous hormones will eventually shut down natural production so it should be used with caution. In addition, in men DHEA supplementation can increase PSA (possibly due to conversion to estrogen) levels as well as estrogen levels. Therefore, adding an estrogen control supplement such as EC and prostate health support supplements such as stinging nettle root is a good idea. It is also a must to have blood work done before starting DHEA supplementation use and a few months after to see how it is affecting you. The Basic Male Panel is a viable option for testing. 

What are the optimal levels of DHEA that men and women should strive for? According to Life Extension Magazine:  For women, an ideal DHEA-S level is 275 to 400 micrograms/dL, and in men, 350 to 500 micrograms/dL.

If you’re currently in a high-stress period, DHEA supplementation may make sense to build up your reserves as soon as possible and then you can cycle off when things quell. It still makes sense to integrate the lifestyle changes (tai-chi, chi kung, mediation etc) and supplements discussed even if you choose to go the DHEA supplementation route. Consultation with a reputable doctor such as Dr. Mark Gordon is a good idea before starting supplementation.  Dr. Mark Gordon contact information

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