Progesterone is a tiny molecule that plays a big role in the hormonal picture. When levels start to go awry, our health and well-being suffers. Understanding how our hormones affect wellness is not only an important tool for self-care, but this knowledge also gives us the power to advocate for ourselves so we can access the care we deserve. Whether your goal is to regulate your cycle, conceive and carry a healthy pregnancy, reduce the long-term risks associated with hormonal imbalances, or just gain some good, old-fashioned information about how your body was designed, this post is for you!
Throughout the female cycle, two hormones tend to be held responsible for triggering key events such as ovulation and the start of a period. In the first half of the cycle, estrogen rises and falls, correlating with a hormonal signal from the brain that triggers the release of an egg. Following ovulation, the corpus luteum produces progesterone, which is responsible for thickening the uterine lining in anticipating of pregnancy. After about seven days, progesterone levels peak and begin to steadily decline; once they drop low enough, the lining starts to shed, signaling the start of a period and another cycle.
When progesterone levels drop too low, or aren’t produced in a functional ratio in comparison to other sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen, our health suffers. Chronically low progesterone can increase risk of osteoporosis, poor blood sugar control and diabetes, breast cancer, depression, anxiety, and other neurocognitive disorders. Low progesterone also leads to symptoms such as:
- Absent or irregular periods
- Bleeding or spotting between periods
- Low libido
- Recurrent miscarriages
- Painful periods
- Luteal phase defect
- and more…
What Causes Progesterone Deficiency?
The production of progesterone from the ovaries is regulated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis, a delicate web of signals between the brain and reproductive organs. Progesterone excess can result from interruptions along the entire axis, whether from a signaling problem at the brain level, or from dysfunction of the ovaries themselves. One of the most common reasons for low progesterone is chronic stress. Elevated stress hormones create a negative feedback loop that interrupts the signaling between the brain and ovaries, decreasing progesterone production. In many cases, especially with women who are over-exercising or under-eating, stress acts on the HPG axis to prevent ovulation altogether. Without ovulation, the corpus luteum doesn’t form, and the main mechanism for producing progesterone during the luteal phase is completely taken out of the picture.
Here are a few other reasons for low progesterone:
- Adrenal dysfunction
- Vitamin deficiencies
- Low body fat
- High prolactin (such as in breastfeeding women)
- Calorie or carb-restricted diet
- Too much exercise (especially high-intensity or weight training)
- Use of contraceptives containing synthetic progestins
- Oophorectomy (surgical removal of ovaries)
- Estrogen Dominance (creating a relative progesterone deficiency)
What to Do About Progesterone Deficiency
As with any hormonal imbalance, effective treatment starts with identifying the root cause. This is why it’s so important to work with a naturally-minded healthcare provider to review diagnostic tests and lifestyle/history to get to the bottom of the estrogen dominance. If undereating is the driving force behind low progesterone, for example, no amount of vitamins or supplements will effectively solve the problem. The dysfunctional relationship with food needs to be addressed, first!
Once an appropriate diagnosis is made and healing efforts are underway, there are a number of steps that can be taken to help the body natural restore progesterone production, balance out the production of estrogen, and get the hormone levels back to a functional status quo.
Diet and Exercise: Overdoing it in the gym and under eating are the main forces behind low progesterone. These create a state of allostatic overload, lowering progesterone output or altogether inhibiting ovulation—a condition called hypothalamic amenorrhea. When I’m working with a patient whose history and labs point to progesterone deficiency, the first place I start is with cutting back on exercise, and upping her intake of carbohydrates and fats. Hormones are produced from fat and cholesterol, so adding in foods like eggs, butter, and oily fish are essential. Carbs are also extremely important for women, and we can’t menstruate without them. Low-carb and calorie-restricted diets also affect production of all kinds of other hormones, including thyroid, immune, metabolism, and more.
Stress: In my clinical experience, the most common cause of hormonal imbalances among women are related to stress. Whether that source of stress is emotional, relational, physical, nutritional, or otherwise, stress management is key. Progesterone and cortisol are both produced from the same hormonal precursor, called pregnenolone. When stress levels are high, the body allocates its resources towards producing cortisol, which means there aren’t many leftovers for producing progesterone. (This is called progesterone steal.) The end result is a low progesterone level. Stress also inhibits the HPG axis at the brain level, preventing the LH surge that triggers ovulation. Without ovulation, it’s impossible for progesterone levels to remain high enough for health and fertility.
Sleep: Sleep and stress go hand in hand. When we aren’t sleeping enough, cortisol production goes into overdrive, creating all the problems described above. Lack of sleep also distorts the circadian rhythm, changing the natural patterns of sleep hormones and neurotransmitters that regulate cyclical patterns in the body—everything from the sleep/wake cycle to the menstrual cycle. Lack of sleep also tends come along with over-use of stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine, which create their own subset of hormonal fallout.
Progesterone has a reciprocal relationship with sleep deprivation. Since one of the roles of progesterone is to create a feeling of calm and relaxation, low progesterone can feed forward into insomnia symptoms, furthering the degree of sleep disruption and deprivation. Targeting issues like insomnia at their root cause is essential for true health and healing.
For more information about lifestyle methods for balancing hormones, checkout this post: 5 Ways to Balance Your Hormones, Naturally
Progesterone Cream: Progesterone cream is a supplemental form of progesterone that is applied as a lotion to the skin and absorbed into the blood stream. Just like a pill, progesterone cream supplements the existing amount of progesterone produced by the body, but does not address the root cause behind the progesterone deficiency. However, progesterone cream can be a helpful temporary step for women who are suffering from extremely painful periods, or who are experiencing fertility struggles due to low progesterone.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D really is more appropriately classified as a hormone than a vitamin. Like other hormones, it is derived from cholesterol and circulates throughout the body, communicating with almost every organ system. Vitamin D also plays a regulatory role in the production of sex hormones. Because of our largely indoor lives and the risk of skin cancer from UV exposure, most Americans are deficient in vitamin D. In my clinic, I test every patient’s vitamin D levels so that I can safely prescribe supplements to restore functional vitamin D level sand hormonal balance. [Reference]
Vitamin B6: In women suffering from a luteal phase defect (a luteal phase that lasts 11 days or fewer, which is a consequence of low progesterone), supplementation with vitamin B6 has been proven to extend the length of the luteal phase. This helps correct for associated fertility struggles, in which the fertilized egg doesn’t have sufficient time to implant in the endometrial lining before menstruation begins—an event triggered when progesterone levels dip. [Reference]
DHEA: Like cortisol, testosterone is produced from the same precursor as progesterone: pregnenolone. When cortisol levels or testosterone levels are high, progesterone production tends to suffer. DHEA is an intermediate between pregnenolone and testosterone, so supplementing with DHEA in women who are suffering from low progesterone because of elevated testosterone can reduce the consumption of pregnenolone for testosterone production. That leaves more available for progesterone production. DHEA can also cross-react with the pathway for progesterone production, elevating levels even in women whose deficiency is not the result of hyperandrogenism. [Reference]
Vitex: Naturally occurring iridoids and flavonoids present in Vitex mimic the role of the corpus luteum, acting on the ovaries to stimulate the production of progesterone. In this study, Vitex was dosed at levels of 20 mg tablets daily.
As if the symptoms of progesterone deficiency aren’t difficult enough, the journey towards a diagnosis to explain the symptoms, and finding a treatment strategy that works for you in the context of your own life can add enormous loads of stress to an already challenging life experience. There is a whirlwind of information out there, which only adds to the confusion and frustration of trying to manage your health. It can be a lonely and scary place, but I want you to know that I am here to support you! If you need help navigating the waters of hormonal imbalance, I’m here for you. As always, please feel free to message me or send me an email at any time, and I’ll do my best to help you find answers. You can also check out my natural health services if you think you might benefit from individualized, one-on-one care.