Progesterone is, of course, very important to our hormonal health and reproductive system. It is one of the hormones that play a vital role in regulating many of the body’s functions – especially a woman’s menstrual cycle. It also plays a very large role in maintaining a pregnancy, so having low progesterone can have drastic effects.
During the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle, progesterone is produced by the collapsed follicle until either the period begins (which then marks the start of a new cycle and lower progesterone levels) or until the placenta takes over for producing the progesterone during pregnancy.
One of progesterone’s most important functions is to cause the endometrium to secrete special proteins during the second half of the menstrual cycle, preparing it to receive and nourish an implanted fertilized egg. If implantation does not occur, estrogen and progesterone levels drop, the endometrium breaks down and menstruation occurs.
If a pregnancy occurs, progesterone is produced in the placenta, and levels remain elevated throughout the pregnancy. The combination of high estrogen and progesterone levels suppress further ovulation during pregnancy. Progesterone also encourages the growth of milk-producing glands in the breast during pregnancy. (source)
Other Roles of Progesterone:
- helps normalize blood sugar levels
- boosts thyroid function
- helps us use fat for energy
- has beneficial anti-inflammatory effects
- reduces swelling and inflammation
(from the book What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Premenopause, available on Amazon)
Symptoms of Low Progesterone
Many of the symptoms of low progesterone also coincide with symptoms of other health issues, so be aware that just because you may have some of these, it doesn’t mean you have low progesterone, but of course it’s definitely worth looking into.
- a luteal phase less than 12 days (the time between ovulation and the first day of your period)
- sugar cravings
- ovarian cysts
- low basal body temperatures
- irregular periods
- allergy symptoms
- brown spotting in the days before your period begins
- recurrent early miscarriage
- blood clots during menstruation
- cold hands and feet
- brittle nails
- cracked heels
- decreased sex drive
- menstrual cramps
- depression or anxiety
- fibrocystic breasts
- gallbladder issues
- Foggy thinking
- headaches and migraines
- vaginal dryness
- slow metabolism
- mood swings
- weight gain, especially around the middle
Over the summer I read What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Premenopause by Dr. John Lee and highly recommend it to anyone needing to know more about natural hormone balance. He discusses at length why we may be low in progesterone and how to use natural progesterone cream to help rectify the issue.
Notes I took from the book:
- xeno-estrogens/xeno-hormones make us estrogen dominant. They come from plastics, synthetic hormones, conventional meats, and animal products, etc. This exposure can result in low progesterone. When mothers are exposed to it, it can even cause dysfunction in their daughter’s ovarian follicles!
- the embryonic stage of life is when ovarian tissues are most sensitive to the toxicity of xeno-hormones
- xeno-hormones are fat-soluble (meaning the body absorbs and holds on to them) and non-biodegradable
- Stress increases levels of cortisol, which blocks progesterone from its receptors in the body. Too much stress and progesterone won’t get where it needs to go.
- Using huge amounts of supplements over the long-term may result in another imbalance in the body.
- Our bodies release mood and energy enhancing chemicals (like adrenaline) to fight allergic responses to food – we are hooked on what we’re allergic to!
- Exercising too hard lowers antioxidant levels in the body. Moderate exercise raises levels.
This book also went into the explanation of natural progesterone creams, which aren’t truly “natural”; a better name is bio-identical. You see, the progesterone in our bodies is produced nowhere else in nature. Dioscorea mexicana is a plant that is part of the yam family native to Mexico. It has a steroid compound called diosgenin that is taken from the plant and is converted into progesterone by changing the cellular structure to match our natural progesterone.
How to test your progesterone levels
The best way to figure out if you have low progesterone is to begin charting your menstrual cycle. You will be able to see how long the second half of your cycle is and if less than 12 days it’s a fairly sure bet that you aren’t producing the amount of progesterone you really need! (If you don’t know how to begin charting, click here)
For confirmation, you can ask your doctor to have your progesterone levels checked on the seventh day after you ovulate. This is when progesterone levels usually reach their peak during any given cycle.
Many doctors will have you get your lab test done on day 21 of your cycle…but if you don’t ovulate on day 14 the results will be off. You need to know when you ovulate for the best results! Some Reproductive Endocrinologists actually test progesterone levels multiple times during the cycle when progesterone is chronically low, even after trying to boost it naturally and using supplementation.
Most doctors consider progesterone levels between 10-20 ng/mL at 7 days past ovulation as normal. If they are below 10 it means you may not have ovulated (anovulatory cycle), that maybe you miscalculated your day of ovulation, or it could mean that progesterone production is very low.
While progesterone levels may vary depending on when blood was drawn (they can vary even during the same day), it will be a good indicator of what may be going on with hormone production.
How to naturally increase progesterone
1. Make sure your diet includes cholesterol. Progesterone, like all other steroid hormones, is synthesized from pregnenolone, which in turn is derived from cholesterol (source) so making sure you have adequate consumption of dietary cholesterol is very important. You don’t have to go nuts, but if you are currently on a low-fat diet you may want to consider using butter, olive oil, or coconut oil instead of margarine products.
2. Use herbs to help bring hormone balance to the body.
- The herb vitex (learn advice from an expert on vitex) may also be helpful as it works to lower estrogen and raise progesterone simultaneously. However, not every woman responds to vitex (also known as chaste berry) this way so please consult an herbalist before you begin taking it.
- Turmeric, often found in curry, is known to help increase the body’s progesterone levels. You can also make a lovely warm drink, often referred to as golden milk, for getting turmeric into your diet.
- Herbs such as thyme and oregano are thought to have many of the same properties as turmeric and can be included in many recipes throughout the week. (source)
3. Increasing the intake of foods rich in vitamin B, especially B6. This specific nutrient is essential for the development of the corpus luteam (the collapsed follicle after an egg is released that produces progesterone in the second half of the cycle). You can find vitamin B6 in many foods including, grass-fed meats, wild-caught tuna, chicken, spinach, sweet potato, and bananas. Make sure to consume foods high in different forms of vitamin B, or supplement with a vitamin B complex, as these vitamins work best when they work together!
4. Choose organic and preferably grass-fed products meat and dairy. Conventional meat may come from animals that have been given growth hormones, and those may act as estrogens in the body. The higher your body thinks your estrogen is, the more of a chance your progesterone levels will be suppressed.
5. Reduce exposure to xeno-estrogens. These estrogen-like compounds are found throughout industrialized countries causing problems for hormone balance in both women AND men. Some studies have even shown that they are changing our wildlife (feminized male fish in certain waterways). A few simple tips:
- don’t use plastic to store your food,
- use frozen instead of canned foods,
- stop using conventional cleaners, and
- switch to natural beauty products.
6. Ensure adequate magnesium intake. This mineral helps to boost progesterone production by simply keeping you calmer as well as by assisting in the breakdown of estrogen. In times of stress, I have used a magnesium oil (which I bought on Amazon) as well as a magnesium supplement. You can also find magnesium in beans, lentils, leafy greens, and pumpkin seeds.
7. Eat enough protein with each meal. Hormones need protein for production and as an added benefit it also keeps you feeling satisfied and reduces blood sugar spikes after you eat. You can choose both animal-based proteins like meat and eggs or plant-based protein like beans and nuts.
8. Practice Lunaception to raise progesterone. In its simplicity, lunception is the practice of sleeping in total darkness all but 3 days out of the cycle. Simply make sure your window is completely covered, where no light can get through, and eliminate electronics that have any sort of light on them. During the 3 days surrounding ovulation, you can either open the curtains or sleep with a small nightlight, simulating a full moon. Kate Singer, in her book Garden of fertility, states that this strengthens progesterone production.
9. Take care of your adrenal glands and lower stress levels. When your endocrine system is on high alert due to stress of some kind (frequent physical, emotional, or mental stress) the precursor hormone to progesterone (DHEA) is then used to make cortisol instead of progesterone. A 24-hour adrenal saliva test can show you what your cortisol levels are throughout the day and may be helpful in helping you heal the body. Working to reduce stress allows the body to come out of its fight or flight response and begin using its hormones for reproduction.
Stress is probably the biggest cause of low progesterone. This can be due to nutritional stress (not eating enough/not eating enough nutrients), emotional stress, or physical stress.
10. Use a bio-identical progesterone cream. If you have major problems with estrogen dominance which is preventing ovulation, or you’ve worked to increase your progesterone levels naturally for a few months with limited success, you may want to talk to your healthcare provider about using a bio-identical progesterone cream or suppository. It’s not a “fix-all”, but may help in the short-term as you continue to boost progesterone naturally.
Ways to supplement bio-identical progesterone:
- Low-dose progesterone creams – found over the counter at health food stores, pharmacies, and even Amazon, these low-dose creams are used transdermally (applied to the skin) and may be helpful for women that have progesterone levels just slightly low. Because it’s applied to the skin it’s different for every woman as to how much her body absorbs.
- Progesterone pills – doctor prescribed, these pills can be found as either bio-identical or synthetic, so talk to your doctor about the version they are writing a prescription for. In my own personal experience, as well as hearing from thousands of women throughout the years, I’ve found that pills are one of the least effective ways to take progesterone as the digestive system has to break it down and it gets processed by the liver before being used. It simply made me bloated and did nothing for hormone balance. Some women have had decent results with the pills, so if that’s all your doctor will do it may still be worth trying!
- Vaginal suppositories – the version most easily absorbed, doctors can write a prescription for bio-identical suppositories which are like easily dissolved pills you insert in your vagina every night. The downfall is that they can be messy, and sometimes you have to visit a specialized compounding pharmacy, but if other versions aren’t working for you it’s worth it to try them.
Don’t use progesterone supplementation long-term as you could cause an imbalance with too much in the body. It’s also best to work with a healthcare provider to get your levels tested before using progesterone and to begin supplementation with a lesser amount and work up as necessary.
The progesterone cream I have used in the past is from Beeyoutiful. While all-natural progesterone within the different brand’s creams should be the same, the other ingredients in it can make a big difference. Watch out for creams and lotions that contain xeno-estrogens and make sure to check for parabens and phthalates. Beeyoutiful’s cream contains just coconut oil, jojoba oil, avocado oil, extra virgin olive oil infused with organic wild yam root, organic comfrey root, and cayenne, 1000 mg USP progesterone, sweet orange essential oil, rosemary essential oil, candelilla wax, beeswax. From my limited experience with it, it goes on easily, absorbs quickly, and has no smell.
Increasing your progesterone levels naturally is possible!