DHEA - Natural Hormone Replacement Therapy?
For those women who are looking for an alternative to hormone replacement therapy, DHEA may be an option. This supplement made from yam or soy, has shown surprisingly good results without the side effects of traditional hormone replacement therapy. The benefits as well as the considerations are listed below.
DHEA is a natural steroid made in the adrenal glands. It is a precursor for sex hormones including estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. DHEA production peaks in your mid-20s and in most people, production gradually declines with age. Testosterone and estrogen production also generally declines with age. DHEA supplements can increase the level of these hormones.
In a woman’s body, the level of DHEA is affected by overall adrenal function. Excessive stress on the adrenal glands lowers the amount of DHEA available for hormone production. When a woman is under a lot of stress, either personally or professionally, the adrenal glands will be forced to work harder leaving less resources necessary for DHEA production. Adrenal exhaustion takes a toll both mentally and physically. When a woman experiences adrenal exhaustion and decreased DHEA, she can experience extreme fatigue, decrease in muscle mass, decrease in bone density, depression, joint pain, loss of libido, and lowered immunity.
DHEA supplementation provides benefits for both early and late postmenopausal women. One study treated early (50-55 years) and late postmenopausal women (60-65 years) with oral DHEA 50 mg per day for 6 months. The DHEA treatment was associated with a progressive improvement of the menopausal symptoms (both physical and psychological) in all groups, with major effects on vasomotor symptoms (hot flashes) in the early postmenopausal women. In addition, cortisol levels also decreased in all groups. Increased cortisol has been linked to hot flashes and sleep disturbance.
DHEA has been shown to improve clarity and mood. In the previous study, levels of allopregnanolone and beta-endorphin increased progressively and significantly in all women. Allopregnanolone is a neurosteroid and beta-endorphin is a neuropeptide; both are crucial in the modulation of mood, memory and wellbeing. Neurosteroids are important for regeneration and repair systems in the brain. In experimental studies allopregnanolone has been found to induce regeneration of brain cells in aged mice and mice with Alzheimer disease, accompanied by restoration of learning and memory function.
Reduced levels of allopregnanolone in the blood or cerebrospinal fluid are associated with depression, anxiety disorders, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, and impulsive aggression. Allopregnanolone binds to the GABAA receptor and thereby exerts strong anti-anxiety effects. It is suggested that the beneficial effects of DHEA supplementation on mood and wellbeing in postmenopausal women, is partly due to its ability to elevate allopregnanolone levels.
Beta-endorphin is an naturally occurring opioid released from the pituitary gland, which regulates mood and emotional responses, and induces pain relief, euphoria, mood state changes, and plays a role in the reward system in the brain. This is another way that DHEA supplementation induces a sense of well-being.
Which is better? DHEA or HRT?
DHEA supplementation alleviates menopausal symptoms to a similar degree as is seen with traditional hormone replacement therapy (HRT.) A study that compared one year therapy of HRT of 0.625 mg/day or DHEA 25 mg/day, found that DHEA was as effective as HRT in alleviating menopausal symptoms, without causing side effects seen with HRT (headache and nausea). Another study comparing supplementation of 50 mg DHEA per day with 50 micrograms estradiol per day also found similar and progressive improvement in menopausal symptoms between both treatments.
Also, in these studies, while the 50 mg DHEA per day dose tripled levels of both allopregnanolone and beta-endorphin, the lower DHEA dose, 25 mg/day only increased levels of allopregnanolone and beta-endorphin two-fold.
DHEA is possibly safe when used short-term. DHEA has been used safely for up to 2 years, usually in doses of 50 mg daily. DHEA side effects are usually mild and might include acne and upset stomach. DHEA is possibly unsafe when used in high doses or long-term. It is not recommended to use DHEA in doses higher than 50-100 mg daily or for a long period of time. Using higher doses or using it long-term can increase the risk of serious side effects including cancer.
Some experts think people with a history of depression or bipolar disorder may have side effects from using DHEA including mania and irritability. High doses of DHEA may prompt the body to stop making the hormone. High doses may also be toxic to liver cells. At least one case of hepatitis has been reported. For anyone with any form of cancer or for women who are risk of cancer, DHEA use is not recommended. Similarly, for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding DHEA use is not recommended. Women who have high cholesterol or cardiac issues should consider avoiding use of DHEA.
For women who do not experience the health issues mentioned above, DHEA can be a game changer, significantly improving their quality of life by reducing hot flashes, alleviating depression, increasing sex drive and enjoyment, and improving skin hydration and firmness. DHEA supplements can be made from wild yam or soy. Some extracts from wild yams are marketed as "natural DHEA." Advertisers claim that these "natural" extracts are converted into DHEA by the body. But this is not true. Your body can't covert those extracts into DHEA. For this reason, it is best to look for labels that list DHEA rather than diosgenin or wild yam extract.
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