Progesterone is a very helpful ally. Yet, many women with signs of hormone imbalance have chronically low progesterone, without realizing this is undermining their health. Could you be one of them?
Levels of this important hormone peak in the second half of a woman’s cycle after ovulation (the reason for progesterone’s name, which literally means “promoting gestation”). If you enjoy natural hormone balance, then estrogen and progesterone work a little like yin and yang in your body. But hormonal imbalance in women is such a common modern world problem, that many women are getting by on the minimal amount of progesterone. And because of this, they are struggling emotionally and physically.
Low Progesterone Symptoms as a Hormonal Imbalance in Women
When progesterone drops too low you can experience a range of unpleasant symptoms of hormone imbalance. These may include:
Estrogen Dominance (ED): This is one of the main causes of low progesterone. Here is an analogy that will help you understand the relationship between estrogen and progesterone: Estrogen is what makes the grass grow and progesterone is like the mower that cuts the grass.
When estrogen is way too high (making the grass high), and progesterone is too low (cutting off the grass), the lawn goes out of control – this is how a condition like estrogen dominance develops.
Symptoms of ED include cellulite, breast or ovarian fibroids, varicose veins, weight gain around your hips, and issues like painful periods, bloating and mood swings. ED can occur due to a number of triggers – you can learn more about estrogen dominance causes and natural cures here.
When estrogen dominates there is also a strong breast cancer risk, so it’s important to protect yourself, if you suspect you have low progesterone. I talk about the breast cancer and estrogen link more here in this post.
It’s not surprising then, that research from the University of Adelaide in Australia has confirmed that progesterone may be beneficial in treating breast cancer.
Fertility or menstrual problems: Estrogen grows the lining of your uterus to prepare it for conception (remember that grass analogy above?). But progesterone also has an important role – to ensure that the lining remains there for roughly 14 days after ovulation (the luteal phase) in case you become pregnant. If you conceive, progesterone rises. If not, progesterone levels drop again causing the shedding of the uterine lining which we know as menstruation.
However, when progesterone is chronically low, this process malfunctions and the progesterone peak may not occur. Then you may have irregular or very heavy periods or trouble conceiving. You may also experience pre-menstrual migraines and more intense symptoms of PMS.
High anxiety and low mood: Progesterone has both antidepressant and anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) actions, courtesy of its metabolites – 5α- and 5β-allopregnanolone. These help to increase levels of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a neurotransmitter which has calming affects on the brain.
Insomnia: Low progesterone levels have been linked to poor sleep, especially problems in falling asleep.
Weight gain and cellulite: If you’re low on progesterone, your body won’t burn fat stores for energy. In addition, you lose progesterone’s anti-catabolic benefits, which help to protect your muscle tissue, particularly when you’ve had a rough week.
Your body will not burn fat. Instead, you will pull glucose into your bloodstream, which often means your body starts breaking down your muscle tissue to provide this quick source of energy. This can in turn lead to the production of cellulite.
Fluid retention: Progesterone is a natural diuretic – it prevents your cells from taking up excess sodium and water, so it can help reduce fluid retention. When it drops too low women complain that they retain fluid during the day (particularly in the legs, ankles and tummy), find their rings feel too tight for their fingers, look puffy in the face and often have swollen, heavy (and often sore) breasts.
Brain fog: Brain functions benefits from progesterone. It is also is involved in the production of the myelin sheath, which protects your nerve cells. It is so important to brain health that research from Emory University indicates benefits from giving progesterone to help people recover from traumatic brain injury and stroke.
Sagging skin: Skin stays supple when there is enough progesterone, which helps to stimulate the production of collagen.
Thyroid issues: As I mentioned, low progesterone leads to estrogen dominance, which can interfere with the conversion of the inactive T4 thyroid hormone to the active T3 thyroid hormone. If you want to give your thyroid more support, sign up for my Free Online Thyroid Detox Workshop.
Bone problems: Progesterone affects new bone formation by stimulating special bone-building cells called osteoblasts.
More intense hot flashes and night sweats: Progesterone may be a secret weapon in helping to treat frustrating common signs of peri-menopause and menopause, shows recent research from the University of British Columbia.
Progesterone is produced mainly in the corpus luteum and the ovaries but small amounts are also made in your adrenal glands. It is involved in the following important cascade, which is critical to female hormone balance:
- Your body uses cholesterol to make pregnenolone, which is often called the “mother of all hormones.”
- Pregnenolone is then converted into progesterone.
- Pregnenolone, is also the precursor hormone for estrogen and testosterone.
Stress Is the Major Progesterone Robber
Doing everything at warp speed is a major downside of modern living. You race the clock and feel you never have enough hours in your day. Often you feel you can’t cope because you have no control over your life.
Don’t underestimate the fallout.
Progesterone is a big casualty of stress. Every time you’re anxious or wound up due to that traffic jam, huge in-tray, argument with your partner, or car repair bill, your body responds as though your life is in danger. Hello, adrenalin and cortisol.
These fight or flight hormones have enormous impacts and lead to chronic symptoms of hormone imbalance. This happens because your body thinks you’re in an unsafe environment and drops progesterone levels to ensure the lining of your uterus is not-conception friendly. This makes sense, given that your brain signals are saying your life is under threat. As a result, you may develop Luteal Phase Insufficiency.
Here’s why: each month when an egg is released causing you to ovulate, it leaves behind a crater on the surface of your ovaries. This is called a corpus luteum and it’s like a little pop-up factory where most of your progesterone is made. When you ovulate, your body produces around 25mg of progesterone daily all through the fertile phase of your menstrual cycle.
Or, it should produce this amount. But I constantly see hormonal imbalance in women that leads them to have:
Estrogen Dominance + Luteal Phase Insufficiency = Progesterone Deficiency.
The end result? Many women fail to reach this progesterone peak in the second half of their menstrual cycle. This means a huge drop in the very hormone that helps promote calm and is important for fertility and a stable menstrual cycle.
How Cortisol (stress) Steals Progesterone: Both these hormones are produced from pregnenolone. When you are in chronic stress, the body will always divert the available pregnenolone to produce higher amounts of cortisol to help you get through stress. This means there might not be enough to produce sufficient levels of progesterone. This is called “pregnenolone steal” and it’s the leading cause of low progesterone problems. I discuss this in more detail in this adrenal fatigue post.
Measuring Low Progesterone
Keeping track of certain changes in your menstrual cycle can help to indicate if you have low progesterone. Telltale signs include:
- Low temperature during the luteal phase (roughly 11 – 14 days from ovulation mid-cycle, to menstruation).
- Spotting for several days before menstruation starts.
- The luteal phase of your cycle (from ovulation to period) is shorter than the follicular phase.
- Persistence in the clear, stretchy, fertile mucus of ovulation during those last few weeks of your cycle – this can be a sign of Estrogen Dominance. If progesterone levels are sufficient, your mucous should change to a tackier, drier consistency in the lead-up to your menstrual period.
- Of course, you can get lab tests. The most accurate is urine test. I like the DUTCH test but you need to find a practitioner to help you interpret the results. (You can email my team to ask for recommendations). To find a doctor in your area, here is a list of directories for you. Blood is utterly useless when it comes to steroid hormones such as progesterone.
Bio-Identical Progesterone To Balance Hormones Naturally
Though progesterone can be given as a cream to help boost low levels, many women find this causes side effects that may include issues like heart palpitations, sleepiness or nausea. If you overdo the dose and have too much progesterone, it can build up in the fat tissue of the body and can then take three to six months to clear the excess.
I also feel that by relying solely on bio-identical hormones, you are turning a deaf ear to all the causes of low progesterone such as emotional stress, physical stress from bacterial, viral or parasitic infections, toxicity issues, excess alcohol, etc. No doubt, some women who, for example, lost their uterus or who live in stressful circumstances that won’t go away any time soon, will benefit from bio-identical progesterone to get on with their lives.
My preference where possible, is to adopt a diet that supports hormone balance.
Firstly, you need to ensure you are choosing the best foods for hormone balance for your body, To learn more about this, sign up for my Free Cooking for Balance Workshop.
Next, it helps to include more progesterone-boosting food in your daily meals.
Balancing Progesterone Levels with Food
Though no foods contain progesterone, the following micro-nutrients can provide the environment needed to support your body to boost progesterone levels:
Research shows that vitamin C can help boost progesterone levels and correct luteal phase issues.
Good sources: Camu camu (Peruvian berry), sweet potato, kiwi, strawberries, oranges, papaya and pumpkin. Many other veggies also boost vitamin C too, including broccoli, mustard greens, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts and lemons.
Try this: Add ½ teaspoon of camu camu to any of these hormone balancing smoothie recipes.
This important mineral is not just a must have for your immunity and skin. Zinc also helps the pituitary gland to release follicle-stimulating hormones. These encourage ovulation and they also tell your ovaries to produce more progesterone, just in case you become pregnant each month.
Good sources: Oysters, shrimp (prawns), beef, lamb, liver, shellfish, red meat, pumpkin and cashew nuts.
This important mineral not only helps to preserve progesterone levels through keeping you calmer, it also assists the breakdown of the antagonistic estrogen metabolites, reducing estrogen dominance.
Other good sources: Cashews, leafy greens such as kale and Swiss chard, pumpkin seeds, black beans, lentils and other legumes, cacao, mackerel fish and whole grain brown rice.
Try this: Massaged Kale Salad
Research shows that vitamin E can help to improve luteal bloodflow and raise progesterone levels in some women.
Sources: Sunflower seeds, almonds and hazelnuts. In smaller amounts: avocado, sunflower seeds, red peppers, collard greens, pumpkin, asparagus, butternut squash, broccoli and mango.
Try this: Almond Flour Zucchini Apple Pancakes
The B vitamins help combat stress and also help your liver break down estrogen byproducts, reducing estrogen dominance.
Taking vitamin supplements of B6, can also help reduce levels of estrogen while boosting progesterone production.
Good sources: Russet potatoes, salmon, tuna, bananas, spinach, walnuts, beef, chicken, sweet potato, beans and prunes.
Try this: Easy Thai Salmon
Cholesterol is needed in your body to make pregnenolone, which as I’ve said, is the “mother hormone.” Pregnenolone then goes on to help make progesterone, which is a precursor for other hormones, like testosterone and estrogen.
Good sources: Coconut oil, coconut butter, turkey and red meat, eggs and yogurt (if you can tolerate them), olives and olive oil.
Try this: Cauliflower and Coconut Red Lentils
Cruciferous vegetables are a great way to reduce Estrogen Dominance. They are rich in glucosinolates, which activate phase 2 detoxification in the liver, helping to filter estrogen metabolites from your body. This is good news for your hormone balance because it prevents estrogen byproducts circulating for too long, which can raise estrogen levels and cause hormonal havoc.
Other good sources: Broccoli, collard greens, kale, Swiss chard, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts.
Try my: Creamy Asparagus Broccoli Salad
Fiber is essential in good hormonal balance; it helps with bowel movement and the evacuation of metabolized hormones, including the harmful estrogens which antagonize progesterone from doing its work.
Good sources: Flaxseed, quinoa, millet, amaranth, teff, gluten-free oats.
Try this: Carrot Orange Muffins
This amino acid is found in high-protein foods and it helps your body make nitric acid. In turn the nitric acid, relaxes your blood vessels so that circulation increases. This then ensures that your corpus luteum and other organs such as your ovaries enjoy improved blood flow to help them produce more progesterone.
Other good sources: Lentils and chickpeas, fish, such as salmon, tuna and trout, turkey, chicken, pork, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and dairy foods (if well tolerated).