If you are suffering from fatigue or foggy thinking, weight gain, skin trouble, insomnia, low libido, infertility or irregular periods… low progesterone may be to blame!
While these symptoms can be triggered by other causes, progesterone imbalance can be part of the picture. And more often than not, we’re noticing an imbalance between estrogen and progesterone as causing problems for women of all ages – from teens all the way through menopause.
There are many reasons why progesterone deficiency occurs. A high diet in sugar, feeling stressed out, use of birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy, pharmaceutical drugs, and heavy metal exposure can all limit the activity of progesterone.
In this article, we will take a deep dive into progesterone; why it might be low and how to get it back in balance.
What is Progesterone?
The reproductive system in women has two main hormones – estrogen and progesterone.
Progesterone, as its name implies, is your “pro-gestation hormone” – it is produced in the ovaries after ovulation to prepare the uterus for pregnancy. It is also produced in small amounts in the adrenal glands and in large amounts by the placenta during pregnancy.
What is the Role of Progesterone?
Progesterone prepares the body for pregnancy by stimulating the production of proteins that prepare the uterine lining for implantation. Progesterone also regulates our menstrual cycle – if a pregnancy does not occur, progesterone levels drop off and a menstrual period will result. It is also important to note that if ovulation does not occur, progesterone will not rise.
Progesterone is much more than just a pregnancy support hormone. Receptors for this hormone are found in the brain, breasts, blood vessels, and bones, in addition to the receptors in the reproductive organs. Progesterone is the natural balancing agent for estrogen – preventing estrogen from producing too many growth-stimulating effects on our tissues.
Progesterone also has significant anti-anxiety and relaxing effects on the body. It helps our mind and body cope with stress and can promote healthy sleep.
Progesterone Changes over Time
Production of progesterone peaks in our mid-reproductive years – around 25 years old. After that, we see steady declines in progesterone production until perimenopause and menopause, when production drops off almost entirely.
Women who do not experience regular periods, or women who are not ovulating, typically have low levels of progesterone as well.
Symptoms of Progesterone Deficiency
Low levels of progesterone can lead to a vast number of symptoms. Many of the symptoms are not taken seriously by conventional doctors or may be attributed to other causes (especially anxiety, depression, insomnia and PMS). I am always mortified to see women with a clear case of progesterone deficiency being prescribed antidepressants and sleeping pills when the real cause of symptoms is an imbalance in progesterone levels.
Symptoms of Progesterone Deficiency:
- Premenstrual mood changes
- Painful or lumpy breasts
- Premenstrual headaches
- Anxiety and depression
- Recurrent miscarriage
- Low Libido
- Acne, brittle nails, dry skin
- Unexplained weight gain, slow metabolism
The Progesterone Connection
No hormone functions in isolation. Each hormone in our body interacts with other hormones for optimal balance. Progesterone interacts with a number of important hormones, a few of which are noted here:
Progesterone is the natural balancer to estrogen. When progesterone levels are deficient, we can see symptoms of estrogen dominance. Estrogen dominance can occur when levels of estrogen are normal, and even on the low end, this is what we call “relative estrogen dominance”
These include the symptoms listed above but also:
- heavy periods
- fluid retention
- foggy thinking
- decreased sex drive
Progesterone is the direct precursor to the production of cortisol, our stress and survival hormone. If progesterone levels are low, our ability to cope with stress diminishes and we may develop anxiety, depression, insomnia or feel overwhelmed.
Thyroid hormones stimulate the production and release of progesterone from ovarian cells. Thyroid hormone also influences the formation of progesterone receptors on cells throughout the body. If your thyroid function is low (hypothyroidism) you may also be experiencing low progesterone levels.
How to Heal Progesterone Deficiency
Laboratory testing is necessary for all women seeking treatment for progesterone deficiency. It is imperative to understand the balance in the different hormones before starting any type of hormone treatment. At Glow Natural Medicine we like to use a combination of blood, urine and saliva testing to see the full picture.
A lifestyle approach to improving progesterone levels is the foundation for all other treatments. Let me repeat – positive lifestyle changes must be put in place before adding in hormones and supplements. Decreasing stress levels, encouraging a healthy diet that provides adequate protein and healthy fats, and engaging in regular exercise are all important to balancing progesterone levels.
Lifestyle Causes of Low Progesterone
We are exposed to more xenoestrogens (chemicals that mimic estrogen) in our environment and foods than ever before. Found in plastics, synthetic hormones and animal products, xenoestrogens cause the body to perceive higher estrogen levels in the system and the relative progesterone levels pale in comparison.
Stress (from work, relationships, finances, kids, traffic….)
Many of us feel stressed out and tired and our progesterone levels suffer as a result. Chemically speaking, when cortisol (our stress hormone) spikes, it blocks progesterone receptors and limits the activity of progesterone.
Exercise: Find the Balance
Often I’m seeing women and men who are working out extremely hard, competing at high levels (even recreationally) and this results in hormonal systems that are out of whack. For optimal hormone function and progesterone balance, moderate exercise is key. About four to five times weekly at 30- to 60-minute intervals is great.
Key Nutrients for Hormone Balance
There are a vast number of nutrients, and plant-based botanical medicines that can influence the production of progesterone. Some women also choose bioidentical progesterone and have great success with it.
Necessary for appropriate ovulation and subsequent progesterone production. If you are deficient, you will likely also be deficient in progesterone. Excellent food sources include tuna, salmon, turkey, chicken, sweet potato, sunflower seeds and dark leafy greens.
Magnesium is necessary for detoxification of hormones, especially estrogen. If you are deficient in magnesium you may have higher circulating levels of estrogen, resulting in a relative progesterone deficiency. Food sources of magnesium include pumpkin seeds, leafy greens, sunflower seeds, and beans. Supplement with the glycinate form of magnesium for additional calming and neuroprotective effects.
Chaste berry (Vitex agnus-castus)
Chaste berry (or chaste tree) has been found to increase progesterone levels during the second half of the menstrual cycle. It can also help to balance other hormones such as prolactin. I have seen amazing benefits in hormones balance from the use of this single herb.
Endocrine Complete is my favorite multivitamin for women over 35 because of the adrenal support and it contains all the necessary nutrients, in the right forms, to help ensure proper hormone balance.
Bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (BHRT) uses hormones that are identical to those in your body to balance your hormones and relieve symptoms of hormone imbalance. Bioidentical progesterone is typically made from wild yams or soybean and is typically applied in cream form during the second half of the menstrual cycle. (I recommend avoiding soybean based formulas and opting for the wild yam derived versions)
Transdermal progesterone results in effective absorption of progesterone and movement of progesterone to the target tissues – brain, uterus, breast and blood vessels – to decrease symptoms. It is typically used twice per day and dosages vary. Oral progesterone can also be helpful in cases of anxiety and insomnia.
Balance Can be Yours
Hormone imbalance is not in your head – it is in every cell in your body. If you think your hormones are out of balance, and would like to understand why, you can schedule a Case Review package where we will dive into your health history, current state of health, lifestyle, stressors, and formulate a plan to get you back in balance.