Most of us don’t realise the importance of progesterone and its impact in keeping the reproductive system healthy. It is vital to know that healthy hormones can help boost fertility, menstrual health and your mental health too! Hormones affect so many different things so the more we know about them, the better - failing to understand the true significance of hormone imbalances on our overall health or well being can have a detrimental effect on our bodies. You may be curious as to what progesterone actually does, how to know if you have a progesterone deficiency and how to increase progesterone production. Allow us to answer all of your questions as we explain why progesterone is so essential. We’ll also give you tips to ensure you can naturally enhance your progesterone levels and boost your health!
What is Progesterone?
Fertility and menstruation are largely controlled by hormones but the truth is, our hormones are constantly changing due to our menstrual cycle, diets, environmental changes, stress levels, and any underlying medical conditions. That is why it is necessary for us to get to know the way our bodies work, that way we can prevent any future implications.
Progesterone is one of the two major female sex hormones and is key in fertility. It is produced in the ovaries, the placenta (when you get pregnant) and the adrenal glands. In the body, progesterone stimulates and regulates various functions and helps to prepare the body for pregnancy as well as conception, it also regulates your menstrual cycle and impacts your libido.
Progesterone’s main purposes are to:
- Help increase libido around ovulation
- Maintain a healthy uterine lining ready for egg implantation
- Support healthy and normal blood clotting
- Allow the development of the embryo and foetus throughout your pregnancy
- Prevent immune rejection of the developing foetus
- Help maintain a healthy cervical mucus which provides nourishment and safe travels for the sperm as it moves towards the egg
In terms of your menstrual cycle, the progesterone hormone is believed to be partly responsible for symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), such as breast tenderness, feeling bloated and mood swings. This is because progesterone comes into play after ovulation, this is around day 14 of your cycle (but this can vary from person to person) when the luteinizing hormone (LH) stimulates the corpus luteum - the egg sac in the ovary that remains after ovulation. And it is the corpus luteum that produces progesterone.
What happens if you don’t have enough progesterone?
If you don't have enough progesterone, you may struggle to get pregnant and to maintain a healthy pregnancy.. For women who are not pregnant, normal serum progesterone levels can range from 1 to 20 ng/mL, depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle. In the first trimester, a pregnant woman’s serum progesterone levels can get as high as 90 ng/mL, this is to help ensure the survival and overall health of the baby. If your progesterone levels are low, you may experience:
- Low sex drive
- Hot flashes
- Mood changes
- Irregular or absent periods
Progesterone and oestrogen hormones complement one another so, when you don't have enough progesterone, oestrogen now dominates. And that can lead to:
- Depression, mood swings or low libido
- Weight gain
- Heavy bleeding
- Irregular menstrual cycle
- Premenstrual syndrome
- Breast tenderness
What causes low progesterone levels?
- Stress - your body will always choose survival over procreation as part of it’s flight or fight response, so in times of stress, the brain will signal to the glands to prioritise cortisol (aka the stress hormone) production over progesterone. By prioritizing cortisol, your body is essentially blocking progesterone receptors meaning that you can not efficiently use the progesterone you are making.
- Age/ Menopause - after the age of 35, there is a decline in progesterone. Therefore, as you approach menopause, you ovulate less frequently and without ovulation, you can't produce sufficient progesterone.
- Ovulation issues - when you don’t ovulate, there is no corpus luteum left over to be able to produce progesterone, so naturally your progesterone levels are not going to rise like they should during the second half of your menstrual cycle. This is commonly seen in conditions like PCOS and hypothalamic amenorrhea.
- Oestrogen dominance - this occurs whenever a woman produces too much oestrogen relative to her progesterone levels. Oestrogen dominance can occur during perimenopause or menopause due to lack of ovulation.
It is good to note, low levels can also be due to excessive exercise, eating disorders, certain nutritional deficiencies and general hormonal imbalances. If you’re worried about your progesterone levels, a simple blood test (a PGSN), or progesterone test can help your doctor assess if your progesterone levels are too low. If you are experiencing low progesterone, there are easy ways to naturally increase levels at home using diet, nutrients/supplements, and some lifestyle changes. Read on to find out more!
Lifestyle changes to help increase progesterone
Lifestyle changes - expected or unexpected, sudden or planned - produce shifts in our hormone levels altering life as a whole so understanding the connection between life changes and hormone shifts are critical to being able to adjust your lifestyle.
The key to keeping yourself in good health is often found in the anticipation of hormone changes.
- Get better sleep - sleep is an important place to start if you're experiencing any kind of imbalance and this should be the number one focus before implementing other kinds of methods. Although, getting good rest is not entirely specific for increasing progesterone levels, it is important for allowing your body to heal and reset.
- Manage stress - as mentioned before, chronic stress increases the release of cortisol and adrenaline at the expense of progesterone. For this reason, it is a good idea to find a stress management practice that works for you - whether it’s deep breathing, mindfulness, or just taking a walk or even talking to a friend. Your health and your fertility depends on it!
- Avoid strenuous exercise - while exercise is great in helping you keep fit and to maintain your ideal body weight, intense physical activity may cause anovulation. So it is important not to overwork yourself.
- Maintain a healthy weight - an increase in body fat can lead to the production of more oestrogen, which in turn may lead to an imbalance in your progesterone levels - the more body fat, the more potential for excess circulating oestrogen. However, if you are able to Keep a healthy weight, you can help correct this hormonal imbalance.
- Regulate your blood sugar - keeping your blood sugar levels stable and your cells sensitive to insulin is an important part of maintaining hormonal balance.
- Reduce Caffeine - according to studies, women who drink more than four cups of coffee per day may see a negative effect on their hormone balance. While you don’t need to cut out caffeine completely, too much can create oestrogen dominance, leading to low progesterone levels by comparison.
How can your diet increase progesterone levels?
As cliche as it sounds, “you are what you eat.” What you eat affects your whole body and this includes your fertility hormones. Here are some foods to increase progesterone if you’re looking for a boost in production:
- Healthy Fats - sex hormones like progesterone are made from protein, fat, and cholesterol and when the body doesn’t get enough of these, hormone production can suffer. For this exact reason, women eating a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet may suffer from symptoms of low progesterone. Fat is also important for blood sugar balance and insulin resistance, which plays directly into the health of your hormones hence why your body needs a steady supply of healthy fats in order to optimise hormone production. Some high quality sources of fat and cholesterol, include, avocado, coconut oil and fish etc.
- Nuts - eating foods rich in magnesium, like nuts and seeds, can boost your progesterone level. by keeping ovulation on track. Almonds, cashews, walnuts and sunflower seeds are amazing for helping to raise progesterone naturally.
- Increase fibre intake - fibre is essential for good hormonal balance; it helps with bowel movement and the clearing of metabolized hormones, including the harmful oestrogen which antagonise progesterone from doing its work. Flaxseed is a great way to increase your fibre intake - you can add it to smoothies, oats, etc.
Nutrients to help promote progesterone production
If you are struggling with low progesterone, certain supplements may help you rebalance your hormones. While you can usually get all the nutrients you need from a balanced diet — you may occasionally need a boost when seeking to balance your progesterone levels naturally. Here are some nutrients to help you out:
- Zinc - Plays an important role in regulating progesterone levels by interacting with the pituitary gland to trigger the production of FSH. This helps keep ovulation regular, ensuring that the corpus luteum forms and produces progesterone during the second half of the menstrual cycle. You can get zinc from food sources like nuts, beef, oats and seeds, but also from mineral supplements too.
- Magnesium - just like zinc, magnesium helps regulate the pituitary gland to keep ovulation and progesterone levels on track. You can get magnesium from food sources like nuts and chocolate, but also magnesium is involved in many of the body’s reactions and is essential to adrenal health, which is essential for healthy hormone production! Aim to eat plenty of dark green vegetables, almonds, pecans, cashews, brazil nuts, seeds, brown rice, avocado, and dried apricots.
- Vitamin B6- this may be a valuable supplement - studies show that taking 200-800 mg of vitamin B6 per day may increase progesterone levels and curb symptoms of premenstrual syndrome. Women aged 19 to 50 need at least 1.3 mg of vitamin B6 per day. This B vitamin is essential in the production of the corpus luteum, which is formed in the ovary after ovulation. The corpus luteum then releases progesterone, which is why progesterone is higher in the second half of your cycle, after ovulation. Foods high in B6 include salmon, eggs, avocado and pistachios.
- Vitamin C - like vitamin B6, vitamin C supplements can help raise your progesterone levels naturally. According to one study, it was found that women who took 750 mg (the average daily recommended) of vitamin C per day saw an increase of 77% in their serum progesterone levels. Antioxidants like vitamin C may increase and intensify the effects of progesterone. Vitamin C is proven to resolve luteal phase defects, resulting in improved fertility. High-vitamin C foods: Citrus fruits, strawberries, mango, papaya, watermelon, tomatoes etc.
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