Can a Common Health Supplement Help Conquer Fear?

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could master your fears with a single dose of medicine? It’s an age-old dream — people have been finding courage in a bottle for thousands of years — but recently military psychologists have begun to think they might be hot on the trail of a formulation that could actually work without getting users high as a kite.

Most of us have enjoyed a little “Dutch courage” now and again. It’s great for loosening up social anxieties at cocktail parties and the like; one of alcohol’s many neurological effects  is that it dampens the stress circuitry within the brain. Of course, other effects include loss of coordination and impaired decision-making, meaning that in high-pressure situations alcohol tends to do more harm than good. More recently, psychiatrists have prescribed benzodiazepines like Xanax for anxiety, but these too can cause serious cognitive impairment, and are highly addictive to boot.

Beta blockers like Propanolol aren’t nearly as mind-altering, but they have drawbacks of their own: by suppressing the sympathetic nervous system, they make it hard for users to engage in strenuous physical activity. In the military, you tend to do a lot of that.

So what’s the magic bullet? Some high-tech, top-secret formulation? Nope. Turns out to be a substance you can buy over the counter at most health food stores.

DHEA (full name: dehydroepiandrosterone) is a steroid precursor that’s sold over-the-counter as a health supplement at places like GNC. Together with a closely related compound, DHEAS, it’s released naturally from the adrenal gland when the body is under stress. Production within the body peaks at around age 25, and decreases steadily thereafter. Some enthusiasts tout DHEA supplements as a way to counter those declining levels, and promise that they can not only ward off symptoms of aging but also fight obesity and even cancer. No such effects have ever been demonstrated, however, and in fact the actual mechanism is still only poorly understood.

Where DHEA has sparked legitimate excitement within the scientific community is in the field of stress research. It’s been known for years that elevated levels of DHEA within the brains of laboratory animals seem to protect them from the damaging effects of stress. Mice forced to swim around an underwater maze do better, for instance, after they’re given doses of DHEA. “It prevents the stress-induced degradation of memory,” says Yale psychologist Charles Morgan III, one of the country’s leading stress researchers.

The big question was whether a similar correlation would hold true for humans. To find out, Morgan measured DHEA levels in military divers as they took part in a high-pressure underwater swimming trial. The result: like mice, men with higher natural levels of DHEA performed better under stress. “We found that there was a consistent and very positive correlation between their DHEA levels and accuracy in the task,” Morgan told me. “DHEA protects and area of your brain you need for spatial working memory. People who have more do better.”

This finding of course raises the issue: can taking DHEA supplements boost your resilience to stress and improve your performance under pressure? The military, which funds Morgan’s research, would love to know, since cognitively enhanced warriors would presumably have the edge in the battlefield. Unfortunately, on this point the jury is still out. Navy psychologist Marc Taylor recently conducted a study in which his team administered DHEA supplements to personnel undergoing highly stressful training that simulates the experience of being captured and interrogated by the enemy. He found that while the supplements raised the concentration of DHEA within the subject’s bodies, there were no obvious psychological benefits. “We didn’t see any substantial effects in cognitive function,” Taylor told me.

It may have been that the dose was too low; in the future Taylor hopes to repeat the experiment with bigger DHEA pills. Or it may be that DHEA doesn’t cause improved brain function under stress, but is only somehow correlated with it. So it’s still a bit too early to say that DHEA supplements offer courage in pill form. Then again, many people are already taking it in pursuit of benefits for which there’s even less evidence.

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