Maybe you’re aware of progesterone’s importance for pregnancy, or perhaps you’re taking the progesterone-only contraceptive pill…but are you aware how important it is for female health? It’s an incredibly important part of the female balance of hormones!
In this article we cover everything you need to know about progesterone including its role in the body, symptoms of low progesterone, what happens to progesterone in perimenopause and menopause and how you can best support your progesterone levels naturally.
What is progesterone?
Progesterone is a hormone known for its calming, soothing effects, making us feel relaxed and balanced throughout the second half of your cycle, as well as also helping to improve memory, maintain the endometrial lining and more.
Although progesterone helps the body in many ways and is greatly beneficial for our health, it is only made in the body once you ovulate.
Ovulation is the star of the menstrual cycle and it occurs when estrogen levels peak. This peak sends a signal to the brain to release a surge of luteinising hormone, and once this happens the egg is released and ovulation has occurred. Once the egg has been released during ovulation the follicle then turns into the corpus luteum.
The corpus luteum is responsible for producing progesterone (pro-gestation), which supports a pregnancy until the placenta can take over the production of progesterone.
Progesterone reaches its highest levels during the luteal phase (second phase of the menstrual cycle).
Why do we need progesterone?
We need progesterone for a healthy pregnancy, as progesterone helps to prepare the body for implantation, as well as maintenance of early pregnancy.
But this is not progesterone’s only function!
- It has amazing calming effects on the body and the brain.
- It’s a natural antihistamine.
- It reduces inflammation and regulates immune function.
- It supports the thyroid.
- It supports a healthy brain, bones and breasts.
- It promotes a healthy menstrual cycle by providing important hormonal feedback. to the hypothalamus in the brain.
Estrogen and progesterone: The dream team
Physiologically, estrogen and progesterone work as a team. For example, a pre-ovulatory surge of estrogen is necessary for ovulation and therefore the manufacture of progesterone. Estrogen also works in every tissue to facilitate the production of progesterone receptors in those same tissues.
In turn, progesterone counterbalances estrogen:
- It thins the lining of the uterus, while estrogen thickens it.
- It calms the brain, while estrogen is stimulating.
- It helps to slow cell division in the breasts, while estrogen increases cell division.
Symptoms of low progesterone
When progesterone is low you will probably know about it! Here are some signs and symptoms your progesterone may be low:
- Short cycles
- Spotting before your period
- Fertility issues
- Low sex drive
- Irregular cycles
- Poor sleep
- PMS symptoms
There are many reasons why progesterone may be low, including perimenopause and menopause as ovarian function declines and ovulation stops. But there are many other reasons why progesterone levels may not be optimal during your reproductive years. Some possible causes may be hormonal contraception use (preventing ovulation), poor blood flow to the ovaries, estrogen dominance, stress, under eating, overexercising, high testosterone, PCOS, insulin resistance and thyroid imbalances.
Progesterone in perimenopause
During perimenopause you may begin to experience a fluctuation in both estrogen and progesterone levels. Although estrogen is the usual culprit for fluctuating hormones, progesterone starts a steady decline and some fluctuations with lack of ovulation. This can cause a number of symptoms including:
- Poor sleep
- Poor memory
- Increased anxiety or loss of confidence
- Increased weight gain
- Irregular periods
Progesterone and menopause
Once you are through menopause (defined as the point in time when you have gone 12 months without a period) then progesterone levels will have dropped significantly due to the cessation of ovulation and the menstrual period . This can cause many of the same symptoms as listed above in perimenopause.
Many women may experience vaginal dryness as a symptom of low progesterone levels. The adrenal glands continue to produce small amounts of progesterone after menopause.
How do I know if I’m making enough progesterone?
If you have regular, healthy ovulatory menstrual cycles, you probably make enough progesterone. However, the only way to know for sure is to test.
All FUTURE WOMAN hormone tests include progesterone. In fact, we test 5-7 days after ovulation specifically in order to get an accurate reading of progesterone.
Our hormone tests use urine for the most comprehensive and accurate view of your hormones. They give a full picture of not only progesterone but also estrogen and testosterone. Understanding the hormones in relation to each other is just as important as whether they are individually low or high. For example, in a healthy menstrual cycle progesterone should be around 100x higher than estrogen. So it’s important to look at your progesterone in relation to your estrogen as well as on its own.
Another useful tool to check your progesterone is to track your cycles. Your luteal phase is the phase of your cycle that follows ovulation. During this phase, progesterone increases your basal body temperature and therefore tracking your temperature (under-the-tongue temperature first thing in the morning before you get out of bed) can give you important information. A healthy luteal phase will show an increase in temperature by about 0.3 degrees centigrade for 10-14 days followed by a bleed. (If your temperatures go up but you don’t get your period, then you’re likely pregnant.)
If your temperature rises after ovulation but then falls before 10 days, this is considered a short luteal phase and might indicate inadequate progesterone.
Reasons for low progesterone
The main reasons for low progesterone are:
- You don’t ovulate – anovulation
- You do ovulate, but not every cycle
- The quality of ovulation is poor – issues with the health of the corpus luteum
Some of the causes of anovulation, sporadic ovulation and poor-quality ovulation include:
- PCOS (or polycystic ovarian syndrome)
- Blood sugar issues
- Inflammation – which can impact brain signalling to the ovaries as well as affect hormone receptors
- Thyroid issues
- Chronic stress
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Under eating or over exercising
- Hormonal birth control, regularly taking NSAIDs or other medications like opioids
How to boost progesterone levels
Your FUTURE WOMAN practitioner will put together a report which reviews your low progesterone in the full context of your symptoms. This will include personalised supplement, diet and lifestyle recommendations for you.
However, here are a few natural ways progesterone levels can be supported:
- Manage stress levels. Stress impedes ovulation which in turn results in no progesterone being produced.
- Prioritise your sleep.
- Ensure you are eating enough, especially carbohydrates. Cutting out food groups and under eating can lead to hypothalamic amenorrhea and therefore lack of ovulation. Even worrying about food has been shown to impact ovulation.
- Support progesterone levels with magnesium rich foods such as green leafy veggies, nuts, seeds and whole grains and zinc rich foods such as seafood, lean meats, nuts and seeds.