If you’ve read any of my posts, you already know cortisol is a major hormone related to stress and headaches.  DHEA is your ‘other’ stress hormone.  DHEA is responsible for controlling your blood sugar, your mood and your immunity; And for chronic headache sufferers and migraineurs, DHEA has everything to do with our high stress, painful lives.

The Importance of DHEA

The adrenal glands are your “shock absorbers” and are located at the top of each kidney.  They are part of the endocrine system and regulate stress, metabolism, and a variety of other functions. However, chronic stress can take its toll on the adrenal glands and cause many problems, including hormonal deficiencies.

The adrenal glands consist of two main parts, the inner portion (which is the adrenal medulla), and the outer portion (which is the adrenal cortex).  The cortex is responsible for the production of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.  It also produces dehydroepiandrosterone, or simply DHEA.

What Makes DHEA Important for A Migraineur?

DHEA is responsible for boosting our energy levels, increasing our libido, improving our immune system, reducing brain fog, increasing our mental acuity, giving us a general feeling of well-being, and assisting us with resistance to stress.  When the adrenal cortex is healthy, it produces plenty; however, our production of DHEA begins to steadily decline after the age of 30, leading to a natural deficiency even in healthy adults.

Chronic stress (including the physical stress of migraine pain) causes the adrenal glands to produce excess levels of cortisol and DHEA, both of which are stress hormones.  Eventually, the adrenal glands wear down and are no longer able to keep up with the demand.  Exhaustion of the adrenal glands then ensues, with the cortisol-to-DHEA ratio way out of proportion.

How is DHEA Produced?

You may have heard a great deal about how cholesterol is bad for you; however, I am here to tell you that that is an over-generalization.  Cholesterol, contrary to popular belief, is necessary for good health and DHEA production.  It also produces cortisol and vitamin D.  The body needs cholesterol to be healthy.  Believe it or not, low cholesterol is far more dangerous than high cholesterol causing symptoms like depression, memory impairment, excessive anger, schizophrenia, and adrenal exhaustion.

Cholesterol is converted to pregnenolone, which then acts as a reservoir and converts into DHEA or progesterone, when needed.  That ability to convert from pregnenolone to DHEA decreases over time, leading to a deficiency.  DHEA also converts into estrogen and testosterone, so a deficiency results in a decrease of those hormones as well, which would accelerate the aging process, among other concerns.  Stress depletes your DHEA and the results can be simply disastrous to the body.

Symptoms of DHEA Deficiency

Adrenal Fatigue and DHEADHEA is perhaps the most abundant steroid hormone in the body, so its decrease in level can be detrimental to overall well-being.  Signs and symptoms of a deficiency include:

  • Decreased libido
  • Depression
  • Memory problems
  • Excess fatigue
  • Dry skin, hair, and eyes
  • Irritability
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Sensitivity to sound
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Joint pain
  • Loss of pubic hair
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Brain fog


Bringing it All Together

DHEA deficiency can cause a multitude of problems, as noted above.  This deficiency can occur naturally over time, but it is accelerated by poor diet, disease, and chronic stress.  Adrenal exhaustion occurs when there is chronic stress on the body and/or mind because after a while, the glands can no longer keep up with the high demand for cortisol, DHEA, and other stress hormones. It increases cellular energy and restores adrenal function by increasing cortisol levels; therefore, given what DHEA does, supplementation and improved diet has the potential to improve the symptoms of any number of chronic conditions.

I have found that most of my patients who suffer with longstanding headaches, migraines and other chronic diseases have dramatically low DHEA levels.  If you would like more information about DHEA supplementation, you should ask your doctor for more information about supplementation.  Generally, taking the recommended dose of a good over-the-counter supplement would do the trick, and by “good,” I mean natural and not stuffed with fillers and other chemicals.