DHEA, the Adrenals, and Their Impact on Libido

 

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By Krista Borowski, RPh

Many women experience stress in their every day lives and our adrenal glands are called upon to respond. For short-term stress, our adrenal glands produce cortisol and adrenaline to help give us the strength needed to overcome the stressors. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis controls our stress response. When a stressor is sensed, the hypothalamus sends a signal to the pituitary gland to prompt the adrenal glands to make cortisol. When the necessary cortisol levels are reached, the signals coming from the hypothalamus and pituitary gland are turned off.  If the stress becomes chronic, the adrenals will try to sustain high cortisol levels which can result in impaired and worn out adrenal glands. This impairment, sometimes called adrenal dysfunction, also affects the balance and production of other important hormones that the adrenal gland is responsible for: DHEA, estrogen, progesterone and testosterone.

DHEA (dehydroepiandosterone) is one of the androgen hormones secreted by the adrenal glands and is the precursor to other sex hormones. DHEA can be converted into estrogen or testosterone in order to add to or balance hormone effects. With chronic stress and increasing age, the adrenal output of DHEA and testosterone decreases. Although testosterone is typically thought of as a male hormone, women also have it in small amounts and it has a strong impact on sex drive. Before menopause, the ovaries are the major source of testosterone, but after menopause, the adrenal glands become the source of the supply via DHEA. Loss of libido is common with adrenal dysfunction because of declining hormone levels and the natural response of the body to protect itself from pregnancy and reproduction during times of stress.  DHEA supplementation has been advertised as a fountain of youth, cure-all pill that can restore libido and give back the strength and stamina of younger years. In reality, DHEA is a powerful hormone that can be unpredictable and risky depending on whether it is converted into estrogen or testosterone. DHEA is easily obtained without a prescription, but it should never be used without the guidance of a healthcare professional. When being monitored by a healthcare professional, DHEA supplementation can be the missing piece to the puzzle, but in some cases, more than just DHEA is needed to restore libido. It is important to be tested for hormone and adrenal imbalance by doing a salivary test to check DHEA, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and cortisol levels.

In addition to restoring hormone balance, it is important to decrease the stress in our lives. Focusing on a healthy diet, exercise, positive relationships, less work stress and quality sleep can improve overall health. Getting enough sleep is often difficult when it seems there are not enough hours in a day, but it is so important because sleep helps your body readjust to the stresses encountered during the day and keeps the natural stress response functioning properly.

A combination approach that includes hormonal support, nutritional support, lifestyle changes, and proper rest can restore adrenal balance and improve libido.