DHEA (deep breath… Dehydroepiandrosterone) is a hormone made in the adrenal glands, but the job of this crucial substance is not to excite and heighten reactions like the better known adrenal hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Every reaction needs an opposite and it is DHEA’s job to balance these highs and bring us back down the other side when the stimulus or danger is over. This gives it the role of a buffer or rebalancer and how we cope with stress can very much depend on our reserves. Prolonged stress may even lead to depleted levels, leaving us feeling more sensitive to stress and often described as if it is difficult to ‘find the joy’.
DHEA is a major marker for age and health. As its major effect is anti-stress, it also has an antidiabetic action. The stress hormone cortisol raises blood sugar to give us energy for body and brain reactions and healthy DHEA levels can help bring these back down again. DHEA protects against both immune and autoimmune diseases; even enhancing immune function protecting against cancer. It has significant anti-obesity effects, perhaps related again to its down-regulation of the stress response, associated with weight held around the middle.
- Be happy and laugh five minutes three times daily. Find something that makes you laugh; a person, comedy programme on TV or radio and really let go – this is crucial stuff!
- Exercise – Build to ten minutes of limbering exercises or stretching (yoga anyone?) and forty-five to fifty minutes of brisk walking.
- Enjoy healthy sex – Even fun, sexual fantasies are good.
- Be outside one hour per day, especially if you work inside all day and/or are exposed to a lot of electronic equipment – computers, printers, cars, planes, et cetera
Studies have shown that the body’s natural ability to produce the anti-stress hormone DHEA can be increased by learning to “think with your heart”. People with low DHEA levels have been observed by those practising Eastern medicines such as yoga and Ayurveda as having “empty heart chakras”, in other words, they tend to give too much of themselves away and could benefit from concentrating on their own needs as much as others. This exercise helps you to focus on your own happiness and helps the mindful process of unconditional self-compassion that we know to be so crucial to how we cope with life’s tribulations.
- Stop yourself and observe your emotional state, simply as it is without comment or judgement.
- Name what is causing you stress, even write it down if it helps.
- Focus on your heart area – put your hand there and feel the effects of warm, supportive light pressure.
- Shift your attention to a happy, uplifting event, person, place in your life and spend a few minutes imagining it into your heart centre.
- Bring something to mind that allows you to feel unconditional love or appreciation eg. a child or a pet and hold that feeling for 15 seconds, holding your hand over your heart to connect to the very real physical effects.
- Note how you’ve been able to shift out of the downward spiral of negativity.
Do this exercise if feeling under stress, angry, guilty, fearful or anxious. The idea is to recharge your batteries, rather than continually exhausting them. Results of regular practice over one month have shown the stabilisation of adrenaline and cortisol and an increase in DHEA levels. Normalisation of erratic heart rhythms has also been shown, excellent if you suffer from rapid heart beat or panic attacks. As with all disciplines, you’ll quickly see that the more you practice, the greater the progress and the more automatically you’ll want to do this. Even just holding your hand over your heart can evoke the calming effects when your sense memory is used to this response.
- Prioritise tasks in your life – before undertaking, ask yourself if this will recharge or deplete batteries before saying yes to it.
- Get enough sleep – be in bed by 10pm – sleep on the earlier side of midnight is much more restorative for the adrenal glands, even if you sleep late in the morning to get your full quota.
- Allow yourself to accept nurturing and affection – if you didn’t do this as a child, you may need to get practice. Concentrate on activities and people that are fun and make you laugh; this stimulates healthy immune function.
- Reduce sugar and stimulants – measures to balance blood sugar, such as a good breakfast, less sweet laden foods and regular meals with plenty of veg, help temper continual stress responses and the DHEA depletion.
This article was original published in the April 2014 edition of Om Magazine