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The Role of DHEA in Adrenal Fatigue and Loss of Libido


October 22, 2014 | Published by

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DHEA is one of the androgen hormones secreted by the adrenal glands and is the precursor to several other sex hormones. DHEA levels often become depressed during adrenal fatigue. A saliva test can determine whether your DHEA levels are below normal. I usually recommend measuring DHEA-S levels with the saliva test as well because the adrenals are the primary source of DHEA-S (but not necessarily DHEA). Adrenal fatigue syndrome often involves decreased DHEA-S. The DHEA-S level is a direct indicator of the functioning of the area within the adrenal glands that produces sex hormones (the zona reticularis).

Saliva tests for testosterone, the estrogens, progesterone and other hormones can also be done, if needed, and may be of value in working with adrenal fatigue. Testosterone and DHEA-S levels are two of the most reliable indicators of biological age. Testosterone and DHEA-S levels below the reference range for the person’s age may be indicators of increased aging. If the cortisol levels are also decreased, the three tests together further indicate chronically decreased adrenal function.

Although the sex hormones are made primarily by the gonads (ovaries and testes), the adrenal zona reticularis manufactures an ancillary portion of sex hormones for each sex and also produces male hormones in women and female hormones in men to keep the effects of the dominant sex hormones in balance. DHEA and its relatively inactive precursor, DHEA-S, are two other major hormones that are manufactured and secreted by the zona reticularis. Nearly all of the DHEA-S in circulation is manufactured by the adrenals, which is why DHEA-S blood or saliva levels are excellent indicators of adrenal function.

The adrenal sex hormones and their immediate precursors such as DHEA, pregnenolone and androstenedione do more than add to or balance other sex hormones. They also help balance the effects of cortisol and act as cellular anti-oxidants. Thus, the sex hormones and DHEA both limit cortisol’s possible detrimental effects on cells and at the same time facilitate its actions by functioning as hormonal anti-oxidants. These precursors have their own actions as well as serving as raw material from which the sex hormones are made. For example, DHEA is exported to most cells and once inside the cells, it often becomes the resource material from which small amounts of local hormones can be created to carry out various specific tasks.

The Physiological Effects of Stress and Aging on Adrenal Sex Hormones

The more the adrenals are stimulated by stress and internal demands, the less responsive the zona reticularis becomes. Consequently, the adrenal output of sex hormones and their precursors decreases with chronic stress and adrenal fatigue. When less DHEA-S is manufactured in the zona reticularis, less DHEA-S and DHEA is available for export and use by other cells. This diminishes your ability to respond adequately to the demands placed on your body for increased DHEA-S and DHEA, thus, in turn, increasing the negative effects of chronic stress.

Loss of libido is commonly associated with adrenal fatigue, probably due in large part (in both men and women) to a drop in testosterone production by the adrenals. From your body’s point of view, when you are in the midst of having to fight tigers and run for your life (i.e. when you are under a lot of stress), it is not a good time to feel amorous because your energy must be used for survival.

Output of adrenal sex hormones and their precursors also decreases with age. A decline in DHEA and testosterone levels accounts for many of the degenerative processes of aging. In fact, the levels of these two hormones in males track the progression of biological aging more closely than do any other markers. As we lose the available DHEA and testosterone, we become less able to counter the intense effects of cortisol in the cells. With age, cortisol levels remain relatively steady, while DHEA and testosterone decline and the other hormones range somewhere in between. In general as the levels of sex hormones and their precursors such as DHEA and testosterone decrease because of age, stress and adrenal fatigue, their many and varied beneficial effects decrease as well.

Dr. James L. WilsonAbout the Author: With a researcher’s grasp of science and a clinician’s understanding of its human impact, Dr. Wilson has helped many physicians understand the physiology behind and treatment of various health conditions. He is acknowledged as an expert on alternative medicine, especially in the area of stress and adrenal function. Dr. Wilson is a respected and sought after lecturer and consultant in the medical and alternative healthcare communities in the United States and abroad. His popular book Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome has been received enthusiastically by physicians and the public alike, and has sold over 400,000 copies. Dr. Wilson resides with his family in sunny Tucson, Arizona.

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  • Luies Martin says:

    The Adrenal fatigue symptoms based blog is very beneficial for people. It’s fact that the adrenals are stimulated by stress and internal demands, the less responsive the zona reticularis becomes.

  • Kim James says:

    Hello! I was prescribed DHEA 50mg 4 times per day, I have been taking this for 4 months now. I am experiencing substantial hair loss and my menopausal symptoms have flared. I would like to quit taking DHEA. Do you know if quitting ‘cold Turkey’ would cause an adrenaline crash or affect the adrenals adversely in any way?
    Thank you!

    • Adrenal Fatigue Team says:

      Hi Kim,

      There are often side effects when quitting any hormonal treatment cold turkey. We do not recommend doing this for any hormonal treatment without first consulting with a healthcare practitioner. If you are looking for a healthcare practitioner to consult with we may be able to help. Email us at with your zip code if you’re interested. Thank you for writing!

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