When we think about the menstrual cycle, nothing really happens in isolation – the cycle is all related to each other. So when we talk about low progesterone, it’s most certainly not an issue happening in isolation. In fact, there is a bigger picture we must look at to find the root cause.
Purpose of Progesterone
In the follicular phase, you are producing estrogen and lasts from the first day of your period to the time you ovulate. Once you ovulate, a gland called the corpus luteum forms out of the follicle that released the egg and produces progesterone for the next 12-16 days. If your luteal phase is lasting longer than 18 days, then you are definitely pregnant.
Now keep in mind that there is a relationship between estrogen and progesterone – they are both produced from the same place. So if you have low progesterone production, you may also have issues with low estrogen production.
Progesterone allows the lining of the uterus to mature and stabilize to prepare for a healthy pregnancy. It also has a direct relationship with metabolism and body temperature – so as progesterone levels rise throughout the luteal phase, so does our temperature.
Another important factor to consider is that is we don’t have adequate progesterone levels, we won’t be able to a) get pregnant, or b) keep a pregnancy through term. Whether of not you are ready to start a family or not, fertility is an extremely important factor for your heatlh.
How do you know if your progesterone is low?
There are a number of signs that show up on your chart that will indicate low progesterone (if you don’t know how to chart your fertility and would like to, click here):
- Symptomatic – mood swings, anxiety, fatigue, low sex drive, and sleep disturbances especially during the late luteal phase.
- Short luteal phase – luteal phase less than 10 days
- Premenstrual spotting – indicates that the uterine lining is unstable and starting to break down before it should
- No thermal shift – there is no shift in basal body temperature or if there is one it lasts less than 10 days
- Poor period quality – if your period bleed is rather dark and and clotty versus bright red and “juicy”
How do you know if progesterone is normal?
- No PMS, anxiety, depression, mood swings that coincide with a certain time in your cycle
- Luteal phase is 12-16 days long
- Basal body temperature rises after ovulation and falls the day of your period.
- No premenstrual bleeding
- Period blood is red and sans clots
Reasons Why Progesterone May be Low
- Stress – this can come from your nagging boss and deadlines along with training, traveling or internal stressors such as gut inflammation, environmental toxins, etc. Progesterone is a steroid hormone synthesized from cholesterol. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is then synthesized from progesterone. So as stress and cortisol increase, progesterone the decreases causing the symptoms mentioned above. Your body will always choose survival over procreation. In addition, cortisol blocks progesterone receptors, which means that you can not efficiently use the progesterone you are making
- Age – After age 35, there is an inevitable decline in progesterone.
- Birth Control history – it takes several months (6-12) after you’ve come off hormonal contraceptives for your cycle to completely normalize. Hormonal contraception essentially disrupts the signal from your brain to your ovaries, so it takes several cycles for that communication to build in strength. Often what we see is low estrogen and thus low progesterone during this time.
- Breastfeeding – when you first start ovulating postpartum, it is very common to be a little off during those first couple of cycles.
- Miscarriage – the cycle immediately after you’ve miscarried (or aborted) is likely to be off where progesterone is low thus causing a shorter luteal phase, PMS, moodiness, etc.
- Hypothyroidism – low thyroid hormones causes low sex hormone levels, in general. So addressing the underlying thyroid issue is key to increasing not only progesterone, but also estrogen and testosterone as well.
- PCOS – Unstable blood sugar and insulin (a common threat to women with PCOS) cause higher free testosterone and androgens in the body, which means lower levels of progesterone. Making sure you’re producing adequate progesterone is essential in order to ovulate. Without ovulation, not only is it difficult for your body to adequately clear the uterine lining during menses, but it’s impossible to get pregnant. And it’s important to understand that even if you’re having a period, it doesn’t mean you’re ovulating.
How to Increase Progesterone Naturally
It’s important to know that if you have low progesterone, it is often due to a deeper root cause. Hormonal imbalances are rarely occurring in an isolated fashion, meaning if you have low progesterone, you likely have other imbalances as well. So finding and fixing the root causes is going to result in a far better prognosis rather than trying to increase progesterone through supplements, etc.
That being said, here are the most holistic ways to increase progesterone naturally:
Sleep – Now that we know how negatively stress and cortisol impact our hormonal balance, one of the easiest ways to reduce and recover from our daily stressors is to make sure we are getting enough, good quality sleep.
- Shoot for 8-9 hours per night.
- Aim to get into bed around 9pm so that you can wind down with a book or cuddling with your pets or partner for at least 30 min before falling asleep
- Keep the room dark or lightly lit with red light. Put up blackout blinds or sleep with an eye mask. Cover or unplug all electronics that emit light. Turn your phone on Do NOt Disturb and sleep mode to reduce blue light emission.
- Try to have a starchy carb snack with protein before bed. So half a banana with a Greek yogurt an hour before bed can help you fall asleep.
Stress – This involves taking a broad view of everything you have going on in life. Begin by tallying the things that TAKE energy away from you along with the things that RESTORE energy back into you. For example, work, deadlines, trauma, illnesses, career change, traveling, etc are all things that would take energy away. On the opposite end, walking, listening to music, playing an instrument, journaling, reading, going to church are all things that restore spiritual and emotional energy back into your life. You want to make sure this is balanced on a daily and weekly basis as much as possible.
Nutrition – Making sure you have plenty of healthy fats, carbs, and proteins in your meals every 3-4 hrs will keep your hormones happy. Here are some other things to consider when boosting your natural progesterone production:
- Coffee – caffeine stimulates cortisol production, which may inhibit ovulation.
- Sugar – Eating too much sugar can cause blood sugar dysregulation which then, over time, can lead to insulin and cortisol resistance. High levels of both insulin and cortisol have been shown to increase the ovarian production of testosterone which inhibits ovulation, thus decreasing progesterone production. Help control blood sugar by eating adequate amounts of protein (20-35g per meal) every 3-4 hours combines with plenty of vegetables, fruits, and complex carbohydrates.
- Alcohol – has been shown to increase estrogen in the body within hours of consumption. Any food or beverage that is considered estrogenic can affect the delicate balance of hormones in the body. Alcohol can also be a heavy load on the liver which may impair your estrogen-clearing capacity causing further hormonal imbalance known as estrogen dominance.
Supplementation – Once you’ve done your best work at trying to achieve a healthier lifestyle, you may want to consider adding some extra supplementation to help with progesterone production. Below are the recommendations made by Dr. Jolene Brighten:
- Vitex agnus-castus (Chaste tree berry) – Vitex raises progesterone by stimulating the secretion of Luteinizing Hormone (LH) from the brain, which then stimulates ovaries to produce progesterone. Vitex has also been shown to reduce prolactin secretion while raising progesterone levels.
- Green tea – Green tea helps with estrogen metabolism, which is critical when dealing with estrogen dominance and lowered estrogen levels are associated with fewer incidences of cancer, especially breast cancer. In one study, Japanese women who drank green tea daily had up to 40% urinary estrogen levels as compared to women who drank green tea only once per week.(1) Often, more green tea is needed to initially correct estrogen dominance, making a supplement a nice addition to your tea ritual.
- Rhodiola rosea – Rhodiola is an adaptogenic herb that helps to balance cortisol output, which indirectly supports healthy progesterone production. Aim for a supplement that contains 100 mg of Rhodiola daily.
- Zinc – Zinc increases follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), which supports a healthy ovulation, which triggers the ovaries to produce progesterone. Get plenty of zinc-rich foods like oysters, herring, beef, lamb, pork, liver, egg yolks, oats, pecans, Brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds, ginger root, mustard, chili powder, peas, carrots, beets, and cabbage. Bonus points for getting your man to eat these zinc-rich eats as well. Zinc is amazing for sperm motility and health!(2) If you are supplementing with zinc, always be sure to balance with copper!
- Magnesium – Magnesium is involved in many of the body’s reactions and is essential to adrenal health, which is essential for healthy hormone production! Aim for a minimum of 50 mg at night (magnesium is a relaxing mineral!) or eat plenty dark green vegetables, almonds, pecans, cashews, brazil nuts, seeds, legumes, brown rice, avocado, and dried apricots. If you’re experiencing significant symptoms of hormone imbalance, consider 150-300 mg magnesium nightly.
- Vitamin B6 – B6 is involved in estrogen metabolism and can easily become depleted if estrogen dominance is a problem. Vitamin B6 possesses “progesterone-like effects” and has been shown to reduce estrogen while increasing progesterone levels.(3,4). Take 30-50 mg once daily as a part of a B-complex. And definitely eat some of the following B6-rich foods: liver and other organ meats, fish, poultry, egg yolk, dried beans, peanuts, walnuts, banana, prunes, potatoes, cauliflower, cabbage, and avocado.
- Vitamin C – Antioxidants like vitamin C may increase and intensify the effects of progesterone. Vitamin C has also been shown to raise progesterone levels and resolve luteal phase defects, resulting in improved fertility. I often recommend 1,000 mg daily of vitamin C to my patients because it raises progesterone. Or, you can try these high-vitamin C foods: Citrus fruits, strawberries, mango, papaya, watermelon, tomatoes, broccoli. Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, and spinach.(4,5,6) **Dr. Jolene Brighten has many supplements that contain these vitamins and minerals, you can check them out here if you are interested (always consult with your doctor first)**
As you can see progesterone is super important to your fertility and ability to become pregnant. It is important to get to the bottom of these root causes and fix them in order to balance progesterone and other important hormones responsible for making you energetic, happy, and fertile.
Even though low progesterone is a very common issue with women, it isn’t exactly a DIY project. So if you need help in understanding your cycle and hormonal imbalances or want more accountability towards changing nutrition and lifestyle habits, then please reach out or dig around our website for more information 🙂