According to National Institutes of Health (NIH) studies, roughly one-third of middle-aged Americans (31.2%) report feeling fatigued much of the time. Not surprising, women ranked higher than men (33.3% to 28.6%) on overall prevalence of fatigue symptoms.
Stretched between raising children and caring for aging parents, some research suggests that middle-age lack of energy might also be associated with a hormone deficiency in the adrenal glands. While loss of DHEA may be a natural part of aging, with levels gradually decreasing after age 25, other factors that rapidly deplete hormones may also be at play.
Chronic stress, poor eating, irregular sleep, and yo-yo dieting tax the body’s endocrine system and may cause adrenal exhaustion. Forced to work harder and harder overproducing the stress hormone, cortisol, the adrenals simply can’t manufacture enough DHEA necessary for optimal hormone balance. The end result can lead to extreme fatigue, burnout, and depression.
What is DHEA and why do we need it?
Dehydroepiandrosterone, synthesized from cholesterol and secreted from the body’s adrenal glands works to metabolize androgens, or sex steroids in the body such as, estrogen and testosterone. DHEA is naturally depleted more quickly in women than in men, and by age 70, concentrations in the blood make up only about 10 to 20% of youthful levels.
Possible Effects of Low DHEA Levels With Age
Low levels of DHEA in older individuals have been associated with certain conditions including:
- Heart disease
- Memory loss
- Breast cancer
- Endothelial dysfunction (affects inner lining of blood vessels)
- Atherosclerosis (thickening artery wall)
- Inflammatory diseases
- Sexual dysfunction.
Signs that you may be deficient in DHEA may include:
- Extreme fatigue
- Decrease in muscle mass
- Decrease in bone density
- Aching joints
- Loss of libido
- Lowered immunity
- Hypersensitivity to noise
- Dry eyes
- Dry skin
- Loss of head hair, armpit hair, and pubic hair
How to Get Tested for DHEA Deficiency
A test that measures DHEA-sulfate levels in the blood must
be taken. Your doctor may order the test, or you can purchase a DHEA test online.
Results may reflect a decrease in DHEA-sulfate. This could be due to a serious medical condition such as, adrenal insufficiency or Addison disease, or from taking glucocorticoid medicine.
Treatment for DHEA Deficiency
DHEA replacement therapy has been successful for many individuals, especially women. In fact, daily treatment with DHEA raised androgen levels in older females to that of younger women according to one government study.
Patients with DHEA deficiency, in the form of adrenal insufficiency have benefitted from treatment in terms of energy levels, restored mood, overall well-being and heightened libido (women). DHEA replacement therapy may also have antidepressant potential, as well as the ability to reduce disease activity in patients with lupus. Established androgen deficiency in women may warrant the use of DHEA therapy, however it is not recommended for menopause relief treatment.
DHEA treatment may help certain medical conditions such as,
- Cocaine withdrawal
- Anorexia nervosa
- Erectile dysfunction
- IBD Inflammatory bowel disease
- Aging skin
- Parkinson’s disease
Replacement therapy involves supplementing the body with biosynthesized DHEA, made from yam and soy plants. This may be taken orally, vaginally, by injection, or topically, depending on the individual’s chief medical complaint.
Safety Precautions and Side Effects of Treatment
As with any hormone replacement therapy, precaution must be taken while under treatment. DHEA may be applied or ingested for a limited period of time as specified by a healthcare professional. Side effects may include acne, loss of hair, stomach upset, high blood pressure, changes in menstrual cycle, deepening of voice, and facial hair growth in women. Taking DHEA treatment may exacerbate diabetes, certain liver conditions, female cancers, mood disorders, PCOS, and high cholesterol.
While DHEA is often referred to as the “parent hormone” for its ability to create other hormones, it can become depleted by a number of circumstances and medical conditions both natural and artificial. This makes finding the right balance between diet, activity, and rest critical for health and well-being.
1A, 2013 (1997a) Dehydroepiandrosterone. Available at: http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/dehydroepiandrosterone (Accessed: 10 January 2017).
2Arlt, W. (2005) ‘Dehydroepiandrosterone replacement therapy’, Seminars in reproductive medicine., 22(4), pp. 379–88.
DHEA (2017) Mayoclinic, .
4Meng, H., Hale, L. and Friedberg, F. (2010) ‘Prevalence and predictors of fatigue among middle-aged and older adults: Evidence from the health and retirement study’, 58(10).
5Morales, A., Haubrich, R., Hwang, J., Asakura, H. and Yen, S. (1999) ‘The effect of six months treatment with a 100 mg daily dose of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) on circulating sex steroids, body composition and muscle strength in age-advanced men and women’, Clinical endocrinology., 49(4), pp. 421–32.
6Traish, A., Kang, H., Saad, F. and Guay, A. (2011) ‘Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)–a precursor steroid or an active hormone in human physiology’, The journal of sexual medicine., 8(11), pp. 2960–82.