What is DHEA?
What is dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)?
The actions of DHEA are complex, but the hormone does show promise in the treatment of some illnesses.
Fast facts on dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)
Here are some key points about dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA).
- DHEA is an endogenous steroid hormone
- It is produced by the adrenal glands, gonads and brain
- DHEA’s physiological roles in the body are varied and not yet fully understood
- DHEA plays an important role in the synthesis of estrogen and androgen
- The World Anti-Doping Agency classes DHEA as a banned substance
- Eating yams and soy does not increase DHEA in the body
- DHEA has been tested for use in many diseases, including depression, osteoporosis and lupus
- Side effects of DHEA use can include additional hair growth in women and breast growth in men
- People with certain conditions should avoid taking DHEA; these include heart disease, diabetes and anxiety.
DHEA is one of the most abundant steroid hormones in the human body and is produced by the adrenal glands, gonads and brain. In normal circumstances, DHEA is most commonly found in the form of dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS), held in a reservoir and converted when hormones are required.
The primary role of DHEA is as an intermediary molecule in the synthesis of estrogen and androgen sex hormones.
Among other things, DHEA is involved in developing so-called androgenic effects, also referred to as masculinization. These changes include the production of oilier skin, changes in body odor and the growth of armpit and pubic hair. Other than this intermediary role, DHEA is also likely to play a part in other physiological pathways; it is believed to bind to a number of receptor types and act as a neurosteroid, directly affecting neuronal excitability.
Some consider DHEA to enhance athletic performance and, although evidence is scant, the World Anti-Doping Agency has deemed it a prohibited substance under the World Anti-Doping Code. A small number of athletes have received competition bans for taking DHEA.
Production of DHEA peaks between the ages of 20 and 40, and declines from this point onwards. This is the main reason that DHEA is considered an important chemical in the aging process, and a potential target for anti-aging drugs.
Wild yam and soy contain chemicals that can be converted into DHEA in the laboratory. However, the body cannot convert them in the same way; as a result, eating soy or yams will not increase DHEA levels.
Although research into DHEA has increased in recent years, a great number of questions about the hormone remain unanswered, particularly regarding the ways in which it mediates its effects and its activity in the brain.
DHEA’s role in the brain
As mentioned above, DHEA acts as a neurosteroid, directly acting upon targets within the brain. Its activities are not fully understood, but some researchers believe DHEA is involved in protecting neurons from toxins and after injuries such as strokes. Some research also suggests that DHEA may have a role in nerve growth, reducing inflammation and preventing cell death.
In some circumstances, DHEA appears to modulate mood and, for that reason, it has been trialed for the treatment of mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Research published in the journal Nature in 2013 found that DHEA enhanced connections between the amygdala and hippocampus and reduced activity levels in both regions. These changes are thought to be associated with both improvements in mood and a reduced memory for emotional events.
Some studies have found that naturally higher levels of DHEA and DHEAS have a positive effect on some types of cognitive tasks. For instance, a study of women aged 21-77 found that:
“Higher endogenous DHEAS levels are independently and favorably associated with executive function, concentration, and working memory.”
Similar experiments have had contradictory or opposite findings, however. Fully understanding DHEA’s role in the brain remains a challenge.
Naturally raising DHEA levels
DHEA can be increased naturally in certain circumstances. Under caloric restriction, for example, DHEA quantities increase. This is one of the hypothesized mechanisms behind the theory that caloric restriction might increase lifespan.
Regular exercise also raises the body’s natural output of DHEA.
Medical use of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)
Over the last decade, DHEA has been trialed for its effectiveness in treating a number of diseases and conditions.
The following list mentions some of the areas of medicine in which DHEA has been trialed:
- Bone density: certain diseases cause a reduction in bone density. Some research suggests that artificially raising DHEA levels does help increase bone density; this effect appears to be stronger in women, although results from other studies have failed to garner positive results.
- Depression: patients with depression are known to have reduced levels of DHEA in their blood. There is good evidence that the use of DHEA to remove depressive symptoms could be useful. A review of research, published in 2014, stated: “Significant improvements related to the use of DHEA in patients with depression were observed, in addition to improvements in depressive symptoms in patients with schizophrenia, anorexia nervosa, HIV and adrenal insufficiency.”
- Weight loss: some evidence suggests that DHEA may help reduce weight in older patients with metabolic conditions, but its effect on younger, overweight people is not known. A review in 2013 concluded that “DHEA supplementation in elderly men can induce a small but significant positive effect on body composition.”
- Adrenal insufficiency: in this condition, the adrenal glands do not produce enough steroid hormones, including DHEA. Some symptoms of adrenal insufficiency are reduced by DHEA, but side effects can be substantial. Further study is required to provide evidence for its overall efficacy.
- Lupus: lupus is an autoimmune disorder affecting the skin and organs. DHEA levels are lower than normal in women with lupus. Some research shows that DHEA improves a number of lupus symptoms.
- Sexual function: some studies have shown benefits for individuals with deficits in sexual function, libido and erectile dysfunction, but other results have been inconclusive. DHEA seems to have more of an effect in postmenopausal women and less so in men.
- Aging: there is weak evidence that DHEA supplements could help stave off age-related changes. The Mayo Clinic carried out a study examining the use of DHEA supplements in older adults over a 2-year period and found no anti-aging benefits.
- HIV/AIDS: DHEA levels may help predict the progression of HIV, and some evidence shows that DHEA might help bolster the immune system. More research needs to be carried out.
- Cervical cancer: evidence suggests that DHEA may inhibit the proliferation of cervical cancer cells.
- Muscle strength: some athletes use (or have used) DHEA to increase muscle strength. Only a small amount of weak evidence supports this type of effect in the elderly population; other studies, especially in adults, have found little or no effect.
This information provided by the web page at https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/308684.php
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