Progesterone is a female sex hormone produced naturally by the body. It is produced mainly in the ovaries following ovulation each month. It is essential in regulating menstruation, fertility and pregnancy. After you ovulate each month, progesterone helps thicken the uterine lining in preparation for a fertilized egg. If there is no fertilized egg, progesterone levels drop again and menstruation begins. If a fertilized egg implants in the uterine wall, progesterone helps maintain the lining of the uterus throughout pregnancy.
Progesterone is also necessary for breast development and breast-feeding. It also helps normalize blood sugar levels, helps us use fat for energy, reduces swelling and inflammation, boosts thyroid function, and complements some of the effects of estrogen, another female hormone.
Low progesterone levels may result in tender breasts, fibrocystic breasts, increased risk of miscarriage, depression, hair loss, irregular menstrual cycle, dry skin, insomnia, heavy periods, increased PMS symptoms, vaginal dryness, thyroid dysfunction, weight gain, and infertility. Identifying the causes of low progesterone is key to treating the condition.
Causes of Low Progesterone Levels
Low progesterone levels can be caused by several factors. Researchers believe that high levels of stress, poor nutrition and lack of exercise can contribute to low progesterone levels. Certain medications can also interfere with the body’s ability to produce progesterone.
1. High Estrogen Levels
Progesterone and estrogen work to balance each other in the body. When estrogen levels increase, progesterone levels may drop. Because high estrogen levels suppress progesterone production, the problem becomes cyclical. Estrogen levels continue to increase, further decreasing progesterone and triggering even higher estrogen levels.
2. Insulin Resistance
Insulin is a hormone secreted from the pancreas that facilities the transportation of blood sugar (glucose) to the cells of the body to use as fuel. Insulin resistance occurs when the body is unable to effectively use insulin. Cells in the body are unable to take in progesterone when blood glucose levels are too high or too low. In addition, anything that causes spikes in insulin levels can result in a drop in progesterone levels.
3. Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome
Polycystic ovarian syndrome is both a cause and effect of low progesterone. In PCOS, the egg follicle migrates to a location other than the ovaries and fails to release an egg. This failure prevents the natural surge of progesterone women experience during this point in the menstrual cycle. When the hypothalamus detects the lack of progesterone it increases production of other hormones to stimulate the ovary. More estrogen is then produced, which further decreases progesterone levels.
4. Poor Nutrition and Lack of Exercise
Regular exercise and a healthy diet are essential to progesterone production. Lack of activity can cause hormone-producing glands in the body to become dormant and cease production of progesterone. A sedentary lifestyle also increases the risk of obesity, which increases estrogen storage in the body, which further decreases progesterone levels.
Certain medications (including some steroids and hormonal therapies) can affect progesterone levels. Many oral contraceptives work by decreasing progesterone levels to prevent pregnancy. Other medications may interfere with the body’s ability to use progesterone effectively. Only a doctor can determine if your medication is affecting your progesterone levels.
6. Chronic Stress
Chronic stress lowers progesterone levels by boosting the production of cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone and it competes with progesterone for receptor sites in the cells. When cortisol levels remain high for prolonged periods, progesterone activity is impaired. In addition to reducing natural levels of progesterone, chronic stress may also interfere with progesterone therapy.
7. Other Reasons
Low progesterone levels in late pregnancy may be caused by toxemia, and progesterone levels naturally decline during perimenopause. Sometimes doctors can’t determine the causes of low progesterone.
Symptoms of Low Progesterone Levels
Without progesterone to complement it, estrogen may become the dominant hormone. This may lead to a variety of symptoms.
If you’re not pregnant, low progesterone may cause abnormal uterine bleeding. Irregular or absent periods may indicate poorly functioning ovaries and low progesterone.
Major symptoms of low progesterone levels are listed below.
1. Premenstrual Spotting
If you’re low on progesterone, then you’ll see a small amount of brownish discharge 3-4 days before your period starts.
2. Short Luteal Phase
Luteal phase is the time between ovulation and period. It should last 11-14 days. If your luteal phase is shorter than 11 days, then it’s because your corpus luteum (your ovary’s temporary progesterone-secreting gland) didn’t form properly. This is called a luteal phase defect, and is associated with low progesterone levels.
3. Fertile Mucus in Your Luteal Phase
Estrogen stimulates the clear stretchy fertile mucus and progesterone dries it up. You should see drier mucus throughout your luteal phase. If you see fertile mucus in your luteal phase, then it means your progesterone has dropped away too soon.
4. Low Temperatures in Your Luteal Phase
Your basal body temperature goes up after ovulation. It’s because progesterone stimulates your thyroid and it heats up your body. Your basal body temperature should also stay up until one day before your period. If your temperature does not go up or stay up, then you probably don’t have enough progesterone.
5. Other Symptoms of Low Progesterone Levels
Other symptoms of low progesterone include:
- Unexplained weight gain
- Irregular periods
- Heavy menstrual bleeding
- Decreased sex drive
- Breast tenderness
- Fibrocystic breasts
- Thyroid dysfunction
- Blood clots during menstruation
- Slow metabolism
- Mood swings
Many of the symptoms of low progesterone levels 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 don’t have enough progesterone.
How to Increase Progesterone Naturally
1. Eat a Healthy Diet
Losing weight, eating a high protein and low carbohydrate diet, avoiding large meals, decreasing saturated fat intake, and increasing consumption of unsaturated fats, are recommended to increase your levels of progesterone.
- Dietary changes that included higher amounts of protein and lower amounts of carbohydrates were positively correlated to improving progesterone levels in the women studied.
- Studies in overweight women show that losing as little as 5% of your body weight improves your progesterone levels.
- One animal study showed significant increases in progesterone when the diet was higher in omega 3 and omega 6 products contained in flaxseed, combined with a lower intake of saturated fats.
- In another animal study, the amount of available food was controlled during early pregnancy, resulting in higher levels of hormones needed to support pregnancy in the group that was not allowed to over eat.
2. Consume Foods Containing Zinc
Zinc is essential for hormonal health and it is extremely important for the production of adequate levels of progesterone. Zinc is the mineral that prompts the pituitary gland to release follicle stimulating hormones, which in turn promote ovulation and stimulate the ovaries to produce estrogen and progesterone.
- Good sources of zinc are veal liver, lean red meats, shellfish, crabs, dark chocolate, wheat germ, chickpeas, and pumpkin, watermelon and squash seeds.
3. Take Vitamins and Supplements
Vitamin E, vitamin B6, vitamin C, l-arginine, selenium, and beta carotene have all been shown to increase progesterone levels. While natural sources of these supplements are part of a healthy diet, the vitamin or supplement content found in natural sources is not enough to make a difference in increasing your progesterone levels.
- Consider using manufactured products that contain higher concentrations of vitamins and supplements.
4. Consume Magnesium Rich Foods
Magnesium is a key nutrient for increasing progesterone levels, as it plays an important role in maintaining a healthy hormonal balance in the body.
- You can either take dietary supplements, or eat more foods that are good sources of magnesium such as black beans, spinach, raw plantain, halibut, whole grain cereals, pumpkin and squash seeds, okra, and nuts.
5. Stop Smoking
The nicotine found in cigarettes can interfere with the way your ovaries naturally produce hormones, which disrupts processes involved with normal cyclic functioning.
- Cigarette smoking also adds to the risk of serious, and possibly life-threatening, adverse events when combined with products that contain estrogen or progesterone.
6. Reduce Your Stress
Stress only adds to the complications that are already at work as you are trying to provide a healthy hormonal balance.
- Take time out for a massage, and routinely take part in activities you enjoy.
- Use relaxation techniques that help you to breathe more deeply and stretch your muscles to reduce tension.
- Take care of your body by getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and participate in physical activity on a regular basis.