Chronic Stress and Reduced Levels of DHEA

Stress refers to anything that disturbs an individual’s physical, mental, or emotional equilibrium. The body has numerous stress response mechanisms and stress can affect the body in many different ways. In fact the same form of stress might cause one individual to get a migraine, a second person to have an ulcer attack, and a third to have elevated blood pressure. Stress has been linked to a number of diseases including heart disease, cancer, and stroke. It is important to realize that stress is not all bad. Stress is a normal part of life. What really matters is how much stress, what kind of stress, and ultimately, how each individual handles his or her stresses. Regardless of the kind of stress, it is important for people to become aware of the stresses that are in their lives. The next step it to realize that there are effective methods to deal with stress in order to minimize the damage that it can potentially cause. With awareness, better coping methods can be adopted. Numerous nutrients, herbs, and other natural therapeutic agents can support the body and the immune system in the fight against stress.

DHEA is the most abundant hormone synthesized and excreted by the adrenal glands. DHEA is the precursor for the synthesis of over 50 other hormones in the body. It is estimated that from 30 to 50 percent of testosterone in men and about 75 percent of estrogen in women is derived from DHEA. Impressive results from some DHEA studies prompted the media to tout DHEA as an “anti-aging” breakthrough. The androgen dehydroepiandrosterone is secreted by the adrenal glands and plays an important role in ensuring the body’s full stable adaptation to stress and simultaneously help prevent a variety of stress-associated conditions, such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, immunodeficiency, hypercholesterolemia, hypertension, chronic fatigue, neurologic degeneration, allergies, and cancer. The study of the physiological mechanisms of action of dehydroepiandrosterone indicates that it helps the body respond to and regulate stressful conditions, leading researchers to suggest that DHEA could play a role as a therapeutic agent.

Cortisol is usually referred to as the “stress hormone” as it is involved in response to stress and anxiety. It increases blood pressure and blood sugar, and reduces immune responses. Cortisol can be used for oral administration, intravenous injection or topical application.

Research has shown that chronic stress is associated with detrimental or maladaptive neuroendocrine and immunological changes. A recent study assessed whether chronic stress experienced by healthy caregivers of Alzheimer’s disease patients caused neuroendocrine and immunological differences not experienced by healthy non-caregivers. The study included 41 healthy caregivers and 33 non-stressed controls. Researchers tested salivary cortisol and DHEA from each of the study subjects. The results revealed that caregivers were significantly more stressed, anxious and depressed than non-caregivers in contrast to similar cortisol levels. Caregivers also appeared to have reduced DHEA levels and an increased cortisol/DHEA ratio. These findings suggest that the maintenance of health in chronically stressed populations may be associated with both protective and detrimental neuroendocrine and immunological changes.1

1 Jeckel CM, Lopes RP, Berleze MC, et al. Neuroendocrine and immunological correlates of chronic stress in ‘strictly healthy’ populations. Neuroimmunomodulation. 2010;17(1):9-18