The letters “DHEA” are an acronym for DEHYDROEPIANDROSTERONE: this is the hormone which is produced in greatest quantity by the youthful human body. In smaller animals, the hormone is produced entirely in the brain and blood levels tend to be very low. The brains of humans and the Primates also make DHEA, but in addition the adrenal glands process cholesterol into Pregnenolone, from which DHEA is made in such large amounts in youth, that weight-for-weight, it exceeds the aggregate of all the other hormones.
DHEA levels are high at birth because the mother produces large amounts during pregnancy and the hormone crosses the placenta to the baby. Levels fall rapidly after birth and remain low until age 8 – 13 or so, at which point both males and females begin to maximise DHEA production.
DHEA circulates in the blood stream and is used by all cells in the body, individually, to produce such hormones and hormone byproducts as each particular cell needs for efficient function: Intracellular hormonogenesis has been termed “Intracrine” by Dr. Fernand Labrie, Professor of Endocrinology at the University of Laval.
The DHEA molecule is modified by a family of “3 beta hydroxy steroid dehydrogenase” enzymes, producing dozens of different “micro-hormones” and from those, further modifications are made, so that within each cell, a specialised hormone mix is produced, which facilitates the function of that particular cell type: this is part of the reason why the ends of your fingers make fingernails, while special cells in your bones make blood, et cetera.
Beginning at age 25-30 in females and 35 (or earlier) in males, production falls by approximately 1-3% per annum, so that by age 80 the blood contains mainly intracerebrally-produced DHEA, with hardly any output by the Adrenals. Thus the blood level in old age is 10 % or less of that at age 20.
As with everything else in nature, there is a “spread”, Bell-curve-wise, of DHEA levels in youth. The disparity between the highest and lowest rate of synthesis is maintained throughout life, so that those with the lowest production early on tend towards zero production in old age. At the left end of the bell curve, there is a small proportion of the population whose DHEA production is suboptimal even in the teenage years and “80-year-old” serum concentrations can at times, be seen in the second decade.
Thus a deficiency in production of DHEA can be found at any age and can lead to inefficiency of hormonal function in any part [or many parts] of the body, including the central nervous system and the “immune system”. Because of this, the clinical manifestations of DHEA deficiency vary from person to person, depending on which of an individual’s organs happens to be most sensitive to reduction in its availability. The symptoms are therefore highly variable. The commonest problems in both sexes, however are those which result from Testosterone deficiency; this is not a surprising finding, given the multiplicity of functions which that hormone subserves.
The subject of DHEA is a bone of contention in the medical community; there are 3 “teams”: very enthusiastic lay people who think that everybody should supplement their DHEA so as to slow down aging, researchers who are mostly “pro” and a group of naysayers and doomsayers, whose objections are mainly of the “What if”, “Perhaps” and “We don’t know, so we can’t recommend it” variety.
In view of this it is important to note that in spite of the easy, “OTC” availability of DHEA in the USA, no life-threatening complication has ensued: as Dr. Fernand Labrie, Professor of Endocrinology at Laval U. and an acknowledged expert in the field avers, “no serious adverse event related to DHEA has ever been reported in the world literature (thousands of subjects exposed) or in the monitoring of adverse events by the FDA (millions of subjects exposed)”.
The bottom line of all this is that without a good supply of DHEA, something is bound to go haywire and the corollary is, restoring your DHEA and maintaining it at youthful levels promotes ongoing normal function in all parts of the body, not just in those obvious functions which depend on testosterone.