Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and its sulfated metabolite DHEA-S are endogenous hormones secreted by the adrenal glands, the gonads and the brain. In young adults the adrenal cortex secretes approximately 4 mg of DHEA and 25 mg of DHEA-S per day. Some 64-74% of the DHEA-S produced each day is converted to DHEA while 13% of the DHEA produced is metabolized into DHEA-S. As they are interconvertible the terms DHEA and DHEA-S are often used interchangeably even though DHEA-S is considered more biologically active than DHEA.
The concentration of DHEA-S in circulation is the highest among all steroids and is only surpassed by cholesterol. DHEA has been referred to as the “mother hormone” because it is a precursor for many other hormones such as testosterone, oestradiol, oestriol and oestrone. DHEA and DHEA-S serve as the precursors to approximately 50% of androgens in adult men, 75% of active oestrogens in premenopausal women and almost 100% of active oestrogens after menopause.
As mentioned above young healthy adult male produces approximately 30mg of DHEA a day while women produce about 20mg a day. DHEA levels have however been shown to progressively decline with age at a relatively constant rate of 10% per decade. By the age of 70 to 80 the DHEA levels are only 20% (men) and 30% (women) of those observed between the ages of 20 to 30. This age related decline in DHEA levels has led to the notion that the relative DHEA deficiency of older age may be a causative factor in diseases of aging. Many studies have demonstrated a strong association between the decline in DHEA levels and increase in cardiovascular morbidity in men, breast cancer in women and a decline of immunocompetence during aging. DHEA decline is also observed in younger adults whom suffer from adrenal fatigue as the adrenal glands become exhausted and can no longer maintain adequate production of this vital hormone. Many symptoms of adrenal fatigue are attributed towards declining DHEA levels.
Scientists assumed that DHEA was simply a reservoir upon which the body could use to produce more of the other hormones. However, scientists recently have shown that cells contain specific DHEA receptors which suggests that DHEA has functions of its own. It has also been shown that DHEA is a weak agonist for androgen and some estrogen receptors.
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