Do you know what the most abundant steroid hormone in your body is? Many people assume it’s cortisol. But it’s actually a hormone called dehydroepiandroesterone, or DHEA for short.
DHEA’s complicated name might be the reason it doesn’t seem to get as much airtime as some of the other hormones. That’s too bad. Understanding DHEA and its role in the body can be key to maintaining healthy skin as you age. Yet many people don’t even know it exists, let alone how to harness its power for better skin and overall health.
DHEA serves as a precursor to other important hormones, particularly androgens (like testosterone). DHEA is also responsible for nearly 100% of estrogen production after menopause. The adrenal glands churn DHEA out and use it in a variety of ways. Our levels typically peak when we’re between the ages of 20 and 35. Then they gradually decline as we get older.
You probably know that hormones like estrogen decrease as you get older. Menopause isn’t something we can just overlook. Over time, you’ll actually experience the biggest drop in DHEA. In fact, some researchers believe you can reliably evaluate how people are aging just by checking their DHEA levels. The drop in DHEA means you won’t make as much of several hormones, estrogen included. DHEA’s role in hormone production means it affects everything from our immune system to sexual functioning to, yes, your skin.
DHEA and Your Skin
Many studies have evaluated the role of DHEA in the skin. In fact, in one study, 280 participants ranging in age from 60 to 79 took 50 mg of DHEA orally once a day for a year. Over the course of that year, the researchers noted a number of improvements in the participants’ skin. For example, their oil production calmed down. Their skin’s hydration levels improved. Pigmentation problems evened out. And their skin actually got thicker. No, that doesn’t mean they were less sensitive to comments about their appearance. Skin thickness is an important measure of overall skin health.
Another study of 20 postmenopausal women tried having them use DHEA topically instead. A topical product allows you to use a lower dose of DHEA if skin benefits are all you’re interested in. The women applied a cream containing 1% DHEA to their face and to their hands. They used the cream every day for four months.
The researchers compared these women to another group of 20 postmenopausal women. This control group had also applied cream to their hands and faces, but the cream didn’t contain the active ingredient, DHEA.
Sure enough, the researchers were able to tell a difference between the two groups. The women who applied the DHEA cream had brighter skin. And they had less thinning of the skin, a common sign that your hormones are starting to age you. The cream also helped the women’s skin to take on less of that “papery” look that’s common in older women.
DHEA and Better Wound Care
All of these general benefits are great. But where DHEA can really shine is in wound care. You may think that isn’t very relevant to you if you aren’t administering a lot of first aid. But skin healing slows down quite a bit as we age. And people aren’t even going to notice whether you’ve got wrinkles or not if the first thing they see is a cut that won’t heal.
Prolonged wound healing can become such an issue in older adults that some wounds become chronic. But DHEA may be able to help. Researchers at Manchester University knew that estrogens can help wounds heal, both topically and orally. The researchers wanted to see if DHEA would work too. And they wanted to know if the body had to convert it into estrogen or testosterone first to use it to heal the skin.
DHEA is a key supporter of the immune system. So the researchers suspected their research would be a success. They started by evaluating two groups of humans. One group had wounds that were taking a long time to heal. The other group was healing normally. The researchers measured their blood levels of DHEA. Sure enough, the slow-healing group had much lower DHEA levels than the healthy group.
That could have been a coincidence. The researchers wanted to know more. So they began working with estrogen-deficient mice. Mice don’t make DHEA themselves. But they do have the enzymes required to use DHEA to make estrogen and testosterone.
The researchers tried giving wounded mice DHEA internally. It didn’t make much of a difference. So they tried applying it topically instead. That seemed to do the trick. The wounded skin began healing noticeably faster. But the researchers still weren’t sure whether DHEA was working in its own right or the mice were converting it to estrogen. So they did one more test.
In this final experiment, the researchers blocked the enzymes that allow mice to convert DHEA into estrogen or testosterone. If they only blocked the testosterone conversion enzyme, the mice healed like normal. But when the mice couldn’t convert the DHEA to estrogen, their wounds and inflammation lingered. This told the researchers that the conversion process is important to healing.
Better Estrogen and Cortisol Production – Naturally
Of course, many women are leery of using estrogen as a first-aid product. But DHEA can help you encourage your body to produce more estrogen naturally. These natural increases will support your immune system, giving it the resources it needs to do its job effectively. This means that your skin will be able to heal in a timely manner.
A common suppressor of the immune system is stress. And DHEA can help support your immune system by promoting a healthy stress response as well. You probably know that when you get stressed, your body starts pumping out cortisol. This is bad news for your skin. And it’s bad news for your health in general. Chronically high levels of cortisol can lead to metabolic syndrome, diabetes, a depressed immune system, and even an inability to fight cancer.
Cortisol depletes your body of DHEA and even diminishes your ability to make more. But researchers have found that supplementing with DHEA can bring the body back into balance. In fact, animal studies have found that DHEA can make a significant difference in treating skin, lung, colon, breast, prostate, and lymphatic cancers. And in humans, getting DHEA levels right helps signal to the body that it should stop overproducing cortisol. This can help get all those health issues back on track—and give you clearer skin.
This is particularly significant when it comes to protecting your collagen. DHEA helps your skin maintain healthy collagen levels. But as we age, we produce more skin enzymes that start to break down collagen. DHEA can help slow this aging process altogether. Plus, an imbalance in DHEA and cortisol can trigger food cravings. And these cravings aren’t typically for healthy foods. They’re usually for collagen-busting sugar. Keeping your levels right can make it easier to stay on track with a skin-friendly diet.
Don’t Get Too Much of a Good Thing
Of course, as with any hormone, you can have too much of a good thing. Researchers have found that too much DHEA can trigger excessive oil production in the skin, acne, an increase in facial or body hair, and even breast tenderness. And since DHEA does convert to estrogen and testosterone, people at risk of estrogenic cancers need to be mindful of their levels.
If you want a simple way to enjoy a small DHEA boost, drink a cup of coffee. There seems to be a link between caffeine and DHEA. But don’t drink so much that you get jittery and anxious. Remember, cortisol depletes DHEA. So reducing stress is another good way to help ensure your body has the DHEA it needs to function optimally. Don’t drink caffeine at a time when it will interfere with stress-reducing sleep.
Some forms of oral birth control can reduce your DHEA levels. So if you feel that your hormones are out of balance on the pill, low DHEA could be to blame. Talk to your doctor about alternatives.
If you think your skin is starting to take on a “papery” appearance as you age, a topical DHEA product could help. A topical product might also be a good idea if you notice that cuts and scrapes aren’t healing as quickly as they used to.
If you are noticing more significant issues, particularly if your stress response seems imbalanced, talk to your doctor about your hormones. Be sure to ask about your DHEA levels. A supplement may be all you need to get back on track. And your skin will probably give it a glowing review too. Just be sure you don’t use DHEA as an excuse to continue to burn the candle at both ends. Getting enough rest and relaxation are key to staying in balance in the long term.