The Pregnenolone Steal: What Does It Mean For Your Health?

Karolina Zaremba headshot

by Karolina Zaremba


If you’ve struggled with hormone issues in the past, you may already know how complex they are to identify, diagnose, and treat. The pregnenolone steal is one example of an imbalanced hormonal process that can result in ranging health symptoms. While the pregnenolone steal occurs in both women and men, women’s hormone health can be more affected by it.

The pregnenolone steal can affect your body’s ability to produce other hormones, including sex hormones such as progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone. This can have downstream outcomes including:

  • fatigue
  • depression
  • low libido
  • mood swings
  • irregular periods, and more.

Let’s take a look at the process in detail, health symptoms, as well as pregnenolone steal treatment. It’s always best to work with an integrative healthcare practitioner who can order required testing and guide you on your treatment plan.

What is pregnenolone?

Pregnenolone is a hormone produced in your body from cholesterol. There are three main areas in the body where it’s made: the gonads, adrenal glands, and brain. (1) It’s used as a precursor or prohormone, which means it helps to build other hormones including progesterone, cortisol, DHEA, testosterone, and estrogen. The metabolic steps that convert one hormone to another each require specific enzymes, nutrients, and energy.

Your body needs to produce adequate levels of pregnenolone, and then be able to convert it effectively.

Did you know?
Having low cholesterol levels can impact pregnenolone since it relies on this raw material.

You also want to be sure your glands are functioning well to be able to produce and secrete the hormone when needed. Check out how you can support your adrenal gland function here.

mom and daughter yoga pose

Having balanced pregnenolone levels can help balance other hormones in your body!

Pregnenolone dietary supplements are available in the U.S. and supplementation has been researched as a treatment for depression, symptoms of schizophrenia, and for improving memory. One double-blind study with bipolar patients found pregnenolone to be a safe treatment that had greater depression remission rates than the placebo group. (2)

Pregnenolone steal in the body

Think of your endocrine (hormonal) system as an interconnected web — imbalances in one part will affect another. Pregnenolone is considered the “mother of hormones”, and is used as a precursor for most of the steroid hormones in your body. If the way this hormone is used is thrown out of balance, other hormones will suffer.

Building progesterone

One pathway uses pregnenolone to build progesterone, which is converted to 11-deoxycortisol, and then cortisol. Cortisol is well-known for its function in the stress response. Your sympathetic nervous system responds to a perceived threat or stressor and triggers your physiological defenses, including releasing cortisol. When released into the bloodstream, cortisol helps to control blood pressure, regulate metabolism and blood sugar levels, decrease inflammation, and improve memory. (3)

Progesterone is also metabolized into a steroid hormone called allopregnanolone. This hormone acts on the neurons and has impacts on stress, emotion, and behavior. (4)

Converting to testosterone or estrogen

Another pathway involves pregnenolone conversion to dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), and then either testosterone or estrogen. Testosterone is an androgenic hormone present in both men and women. It contributes to sex drive, muscle strength, and bone building, among other things. Estrogen initiates the changes of female puberty, but it also helps keep cholesterol levels in check and protect bone health in both women and men.

To further complicate things, the hormone receptors on your cells require a specific level of sensitivity to be able to engage with hormones properly. As you can imagine, hormone production is complex but critical to many body processes!

woman standing and holding her head

Psychological stressors such as work and relationships can have physiological effects on the health of your hormones.

Issues with pregnenolone steal

In an ideal world, where you have well-managed stress, your body’s stress response is turned on only when needed. You have plenty of time with your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for processes like reproduction, restorative functions, and digestion.

With the busy pace of our modern work and home lives, the stress response is often activated for extended periods. With chronic or unmanaged stress, the cortisol pathway is prioritized and your body favors channeling pregnenolone to use for cortisol production. This results in less pregnenolone being available for conversion to DHEA and other related sex hormones.

Did you know?
Although not yet officially classified as a disorder or disease, many integrative practitioners are calling this process and symptoms the “pregnenolone steal syndrome”.

Pregnenolone steal symptoms

Symptoms of pregnenolone steal and elevated cortisol can be broad and seem hard to pinpoint but may include:

  • Weight gain – research in female populations show that elevated cortisol as a result of stress is higher in subjects with a high waist-to-hip ratio. (5)
  • Infertility – a study of infertile women undergoing IVF therapy found the treatment group had higher levels of cortisol and prolactin than the fertile control group. (6)
  • Low libido – women experiencing chronic stress were found to have lower levels of genital arousal than the group in the average stress group. The study indicated that the physical (salivary cortisol level) and psychological indicators were related to the lower sexual arousal. (7)
woman sitting cross-legged meditating at home

Ongoing stress management is just one aspect of rebalancing your hormones.

Natural treatment options for the pregnenolone steal

Treatment for the pregnenolone steal can include oral supplementation of pregnenolone or DHEA. The recommended dose will depend on many factors including your health history, current health conditions and hormone levels, and medications. For example, a dose of 500mg pregnenolone per day for 8 weeks was used to target cognitive and negative symptoms in patients with schizophrenia. (8)

Since the endocrine system is affected by a wide variety of factors, treatment should also be multifactorial. Working with your practitioner can help to establish the underlying causes and identify where your resources are being exhausted.

Overall, a good place to start is to address your stress response. This means coping with or managing stress regularly. Some approaches include a mindfulness practice such as meditation or yoga, massage, sensory deprivation therapy, and counseling. Physiological stress on your body is important to consider too. Aspects like getting your blood sugar under control, treating gut infections, managing other chronic health issues, improving sleep quality, and eating habits all play a role.

Learn more about how stress affects hormonal health in women.

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