Menopause has been mentioned in the media a lot recently and there has been a great deal of talk about declining oestrogen levels, however, I am surprised that no one is talking about progesterone. And whilst the focus of progesterone at this time is on the beginnings of perimenopause, the information here applies to all women because, after the ageing process, stress is the number one reason for low progesterone levels. Read on to find out about the symptoms and causes of low progesterone as well as how to boost progesterone naturally.
Progesterone is made in the ovaries and adrenal glands. During fertile years it is mostly secreted by the corpus luteum in the ovary during the second half of the menstrual cycle. Balanced progesterone levels are essential for a healthy, regular period and it plays an important role in maintaining the early stages of pregnancy.
From our mid to late 30s, ovarian function slows, and progesterone is made purely in the adrenal glands in much smaller amounts. It is actually progesterone that falls first in perimenopause.
Symptoms of low progesterone
- Menstrual cycle irregularity or no menstrual cycle
- Decreased libido
- Hot flashes
- Migraines or headaches
- Aches and pain
- Decreased HDL cholesterol levels
- Changes in mood and behaviour
Other causes of low progesterone
I don’t want to bore you with the cellular and enzymatic processes at play, so simply, under chronic stress, the brain either decides to switch off progesterone production or creates binding hormones to make circulating progesterone unavailable. The stress response is designed to keep you alive and safe, so this is your brain doing exactly that. Unfortunately, your brain can’t tell the difference between an attack by a dangerous animal or a work deadline, the physiological response is the same.
Progesterone and thyroid hormones have a reciprocal relationship. That is, you need adequate amounts of progesterone for thyroid health and adequate amounts of thyroid hormone to make progesterone. The thing that will always compromise thyroid health: stress.
Specifically, the pill or synthetic progestin, but also antidepressants can lead to lower levels of progesterone. The pill, even the progesterone-only pill (which is, in fact, a synthetic progestin), prevents the body from making its own oestrogen and progesterone. After coming off the Pill, some women will find their body has difficulty regulating and producing a regular menstrual cycle.
Apart from perimenopause, these are the main 3 causes of low progesterone that I regularly see. There are other causes of low progesterone including nutritional deficiencies, under or over-eating, over-exercising or high prolactin levels.
Increasing Progesterone Naturally
There is no getting away from it, we all have to manage our stress to have better hormonal health. We have to keep stress in check for progesterone levels, and thyroid health. This requires daily stress reduction practices, learning to say no and recognising and honouring our own needs.
Need more convincing…. progesterone interacts with GABA, a neurotransmitter that helps to keep us calm and anxiety levels in check. Progesterone stimulates GABA receptors in the brain, which has the net effect of making GABA more potent. So when progesterone levels decrease, the effect of GABA can diminish, leading us to feel more anxious, more stressed and less able to cope with stressful situations.
Perimenopausal women have a double whammy – lower progesterone levels and less of the calming effect of GABA and lowering oestrogen which results in greater sensitivity to stress. Putting your own self-care and stress-reduction practices first must be a non-negotiable.
Increasing your intake of B6- and zinc-rich foods as well as taking an evening primrose supplement can boost progesterone levels. Foods rich in B6 include turkey, fish and sunflower seeds and foods rich in zinc include beef, shellfish and pumpkin seeds. Healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, avocados and olive oil are essential for progesterone production as sex hormones are made from cholesterol. Maintaining a healthy weight is important, as being underweight puts a lot of stress on the body and being overweight leads to excess levels of oestrogen.
Exercise is fundamental to hormonal health but like all things, it must be balanced. When continually pushing the body in an intense exercise regime, the response is higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone and lower levels of progesterone. Whilst some high-intensity exercise is good, it needs to be balanced out with the more restorative exercise like yoga, pilates and walking.
Chasteberry (Vitex Agnus-Castus)
Chasteberry’s action supports the pituitary gland’s regulation of ovarian hormone production. More specifically it increases luteinizing hormone (LH) which leads to higher levels of progesterone. This is something I tend to use homeopathically or in a Homeobotanical blend but it is available as a supplement too.
I have many homeopathic remedies to help with low progesterone at all stages of life. However, if progesterone levels have been low since coming off the Pill or any other form of contraception, I will consider using a homeopathic detox. Contraceptives can leave a toxic trace in our system for many years and how well the body deals with this toxicity depends on several things including the heath of the liver, xeno-oestrogen exposure, body weight, lymph and bowel health. A homeopathic detox is individualised to each person and their symptoms.