Using DHEAS as a Biomarker of Aging in Women
Exploring DHEAS as an aging biomarker in women: Can this hormone provide insights into the aging process?
Updated December 6, 2023.
DHEAS is a biomarker that is particularly important in women’s health and physiology. DHEAS is an abundant molecule in the body that decreases naturally as women age. While it garners limited attention in health-related media, becoming informed about your own DHEAS levels using InsideTracker may help you optimize your muscle and bone health, sexual function, fitness performance, and longevity.
Here's what you need to know about DHEAS and why you should measure this marker.
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What is DHEAS?
Dehydroepiandrosterone-sulfate, or DHEAS, is the form of the molecule dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) that is naturally modified in the body so it can be stored in the blood.
DHEA is synthesized from cholesterol and stored as DHEAS until it is needed to make different steroid sex hormones, including estradiol and testosterone, as well as other sex steroid precursor molecules. These hormones are crucial in maintaining energy, muscle and bone health, and sexual function in both men and women.
Estrogen, testosterone, and other important sex hormones are produced by the gonads—the testes in men and the ovaries in women. In men, the testes continue to release testosterone and the other sex steroids at rates that decline slowly but steadily as they age.
In contrast, when women reach menopause, the ovaries completely cease to produce sex hormones such as estrogen. The hormonal fluctuations of menopause thus lead to a variety of physiological changes, and at this time, DHEAS becomes the only source of the essential sex hormones in women.
Why is DHEAS important?
DHEAS is produced by the adrenal cortex of the kidney, a set of glands that produce a class of hormones called corticosteroids. Other examples of these corticosteroids include cortisol, which is involved in immunity and response to stress, and mineralocorticoids, which are involved in regulating blood pressure.
Of the molecules produced by the adrenal cortex, DHEAS is found in the highest concentration in blood serum. However, scientists do not yet completely understand how it works or if it has functions aside from being a precursor for sex steroids.
What scientists do know is that in both women and men, DHEAS levels increase from early childhood until they peak again during age 20-30. After this, DHEAS levels steadily decline with age.
» Are you on birth control? Read more about how it can affect your biomarkers
Low levels of DHEAS
Lower levels of DHEAS are associated with a higher risk of conditions such as diminished immunity, increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, and unstable blood sugar levels. Measuring levels of DHEAS is also used as a clinical indicator of different conditions related to pituitary and adrenal function.
Low levels of DHEAS in the blood are linked to decreased pituitary and adrenal function, which can cause many health problems for women, including weakness and fatigue, difficulty in controlling weight, menstrual irregularity, and infertility.
High levels of DHEAS
High DHEAS levels are associated with overactive adrenal glands, polycystic ovary syndrome, and early puberty. These conditions can also lead to difficulty in controlling weight, menstrual irregularity, and infertility. Additional symptoms in women with overactive pituitary and adrenal glands include acne and excess hair growth all over the body (hirsutism). [1, 2, 3, 4]
Because DHEAS levels change with both chronological age and with disorders that have serious implications for women’s health, keeping track of your DHEAS levels is a great tool to optimize your overall health in relation to your age.
» Discover the key blood biomarkers associated with female fertility
How to increase DHEAS levels in females naturally
You can measure your DHEAS levels with InsideTracker which assesses DHEAS along with other biomarkers, such as C-reactive protein, that are important indicators of longevity and physiological health.
- Research has shown that regular moderate cardiovascular activity, such as briskly jogging for 30 minutes and performing resistance exercises such as squats, can increase DHEAS levels over time for women of all ages and activity levels.
- Making simple changes to your diet based on your current habits—like eating more healthy animal protein if you do not frequently eat meat or eating less processed meat if your diet is already rich in meat sources—can boost your DHEAS levels. [5,6]
- Stress is another important determinant in optimizing DHEAS levels. Exposure to new stressors in the workplace can decrease DHEAS levels in as little as 3 weeks in otherwise healthy women and long-term chronic stress has also been associated with lower levels of DHEAS. [7, 8] While it is impossible to avoid stress altogether, identifying stress-management techniques and incorporating them into your daily life can help alleviate the effects of stress on DHEAS in your body.
If your DHEAS levels are not optimized, InsideTracker provides diet, exercise, and lifestyle interventions to help you optimize its levels and maximize your fitness and wellness.
Why measure DHEAS instead of DHEA?
The “S” in DHEAS stands for the sulfate group (one sulfur and four oxygen atoms) that is added to DHEA. Without this sulfate group, DHEA is not very soluble in the blood because it is a lipid, meaning that it does not mix or dissolve in the blood (similar to the way water and oil do not mix with each other). The sulfate group facilitates the storage and transport of DHEAS in the blood.
This is why there is approximately 1000 times more DHEAS than there is DHEA in the blood, which makes it easier to measure DHEAS levels. However, DHEA is actually the form that is eventually converted into testosterone, estradiol, and other important molecules. When DHEA is needed, specific enzymes remove the sulfate from DHEAS, converting it back into its active state. Because DHEA and DHEAS are freely interconverted, measuring DHEAS levels is a reliable indicator of the amount of active DHEA in the body that is available to make other hormones.
Furthermore, research has shown that DHEAS levels in the blood are more stable throughout the day than DHEAS levels. This yields more consistent measurements in a person over time, so changes in DHEAS levels represent changes in health rather than typical daily fluctuations.
» Learn more about sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG) and its importance for women
What are DHEA supplements and should you take them?
DHEA supplements are readily available, particularly in the United States. Unfortunately, the quality of these supplements is not well standardized, meaning that the ingredients listed in the supplement may differ from their actual contents.
Many studies have investigated the effects of increasing DHEAS levels by taking DHEA supplements from external sources (in other words, from sources that are outside of your body’s natural means of producing more DHEAS). Still, when taken together, the data that is currently available does not show that DHEA supplements are an effective way to improve your health and wellbeing. Plus, most of these studies take place for less than a year—too short in duration to investigate the long-term impacts of these supplements.
Current research findings indicate that DHEAS is not toxic, but there is not enough data about the effects of DHEA supplements on health after long-term use to know if DHEA supplementation causes more harm than good in the long run. For now, it is safer to stick to natural methods of boosting your body’s DHEAS levels through modifications to diet and exercise that will increase DHEAS and improve your overall health and performance.
Know your DHEAS!
DHEAS is an essential precursor of important sex steroid hormones, particularly for women, that naturally decline with age. Having DHEAS levels outside of the optimal range for your age is associated with a variety of chronic conditions that can be prevented by making simple changes to your exercise routine and diet.