Suffering from infertility, miscarriage, PMS, insomnia or mood swings? Figuring out if you have progesterone deficiency is the first step to correct these hormonal imbalances.
If you experience PMS, irregular periods or infertility, low progesterone may be the reason behind your menstrual disharmonies – and the physical and emotional discomforts that accompany them.
Luckily, it’s a relatively easy issue to address if you correctly identify the cause.
In this post, I’ll help you understand how progesterone affects your menstrual cycles, whether you have signs of progesterone deficiency, what cause low progesterone, and what you can do to increase your progesterone naturally.
What Does Progesterone Do for a Woman
Progesterone is very important for women during the reproductive years. It helps regulate the menstrual cycle, facilitate and sustain a pregnancy, counter balance estrogens, and promote a feeling of calmness and contentment.
1. Facilitate and sustain a Pregnancy
Progesterone means “pro gestation” in Latin. And its name pretty much sums up its most important function – helping a woman to conceive and sustain a pregnancy.
It does so by raising the basal body temperature, providing blood supply and nutrients to the uterus, and increasing immunity to protect the development of the fertilized egg.
2. Balance Estrogen
In addition, progesterone acts as a great harmonizer to balance estrogen levels. Without this counterbalance, there can be too much estrogen in the body – which not only creates irregular cycles and PMS, but also increases the risk of infertility, fibroids, PCOS, endometriosis, and even cancer.
3. Calm Emotions
On an emotional level, progesterone is a “life is good” kind of hormone. It’s calming, relaxing, and has a sedative quality. It gives you a sense of contentment and helps you sleep.
4. Regulate Menstrual Cycles
Progesterone is produced immediately after a woman ovulates (as shown in the graph below). The level peaks about one week before the next expected menstruation and falls when no fertilization takes place.
If there is a fertilized egg, the body continues to produce a large amount of progesterone to support the development of the fetus during pregnancy.
As you can see, progesterone plays a dominant role in the second half of the menstrual cycle and is crucial for maintaining its regularity – and harmony.
Source: Armand Grimshaw, M.D.
How Do I Know if I Have Low Progesterone
The most common signs of progesterone deficiency are related to its most important functions:
- Maintaining the regularity of the monthly cycle,
- Counterbalancing estrogen,
- Providing emotional comfort, and
- Supporting pregnancy.
Your progesterone levels may be low if you have one or more of the following symptoms:
1. Irregular Periods
Because progesterone determines the timing of the menstrual cycle, irregular periods will be the first sign that your progesterone may be low. These irregular periods include:
Amenorrhea (no period)
When there’s no ovulation there will be no period and the ovaries only produce a bare minimum amount of progesterone.
Oligomenorrhea (infrequent periods)
In this case, ovulation may only happen every few months, and so does the period.
Heavy and frequent periods
Estrogen helps thicken the endometrial lining. When there’s a prolonged progesterone deficiency and excessive estrogen level, there may be tissue buildup in the uterus that results in heaving bleeding and frequent periods.
Spotting a few days before period
Here, progesterone levels drop rapidly and prematurely during the menstrual cycle, causing period-like bleeding.
2. PMS and Estrogen Dominance
The appropriate estrogen and progesterone ratio is crucial for a harmonious cycle – one free of emotional turmoil and physical discomfort.
Here are a few examples:
- Because progesterone helps release excess fluid in the body, low progesterone can cause water retention and weight gain.
- Due to its role in raising the body temperature and promoting metabolism, low progesterone can make you feel tired and sluggish.
- And when there’s excessive estrogen due to progesterone deficiency, there may be signs of estrogen dominance such as tender and painful breasts, headaches, irritability, anxiety, anger and insomnia (which we’ll discuss in sign #3).
3. Poor Sleep, Anxiety, Irritability, and Mood Swings
Progesterone stimulates GABA receptors. GABA is a neurotransmitter that sends chemical messages through the brain and nervous system.
The role of GABA is to inhibit or reduce the activity of the neurons or nerve cells, which have a sedative effect on the moods.
This perhaps explains why many women feel their best during the second trimester of pregnancy when progesterone level is high.
Correspondingly, if progesterone is low due to menstrual disharmonies or during perimenopause and menopause, one tends to feel irritated and anxious, have lower tolerance for stress, and sleep poorly at night.
4. Infertility and Miscarriages
One of the manifestations of low progesterone is a luteal phase defect (LPD), which occurs when the corpus luteum fails to produce enough progesterone during the two-week period spanning ovulation to menstruation.
You may be diagnosed with LPD when the second half of your menstrual cycle is 10 days or less, or if you have low progesterone on day 21 of the menstrual cycle, or both.
LPD is found in about 10% of women with infertility, and 35% of those women who experience recurrent miscarriages.
This makes sense, considering one of the most important roles of progesterone is to support fertility and sustain pregnancy.
Take a Progesterone Test
If you have one or more symptoms discussed above, it helps to get your progesterone and other key hormones tested.
Our friends at True Health Labs provide female hormone imbalance test that you can take at the convenience of your own home.
After you take the test, you can also schedule a consultation with Dr. Brady Hurst and his colleagues to explain the results to you.
Standard Reference Range for Progesterone
For your info, here’s the standard reference range for progesterone:
- 0.2 – 0.8 ng/ml during follicular phase (the first half of your menstrual cycle)
- 4.1 – 23.7 ng/ml during luteal phase (the second half of your menstrual cycle)
- 0.1 – 0.6 ng/ml for post-menopausal
So if your progesterone level during the luteal phase is lower than 4.1 ng/ml, it indicates an insufficient level of progesterone.
What Are Symptoms of Low Progesterone in Perimenopause
Starting in our mid-to-late 30s, progesterone begins a journey of gradual decline – a phase called perimenopause. It’ll drop to a minimal level (along with estrogen) when we reach menopause and begin a new chapter in our life.
So the symptoms of low progesterone can become more pronounced during perimenopause.
For example, you may notice that your periods become sporadic and your PMS symptoms get worse. You might begin to develop severe headaches or have trouble sleeping, or your moods may start flying all over the place.
Perhaps the most important sign of perimenopause is irregular periods. As the ovarian reserve diminishes over time, the ovaries may not produce a mature egg (ovulation) each month despite the increasing attempts of the FSH (follicular stimulating hormone).
Note: Lack of regular ovulation further reduces the production of progesterone, which exacerbates the various symptoms of low progesterone.
And when there’s none, you may miss your periods or have light bleeding.
The length of the menstrual cycle also fluctuates. It may take a longer time for the egg to mature, despite the trying attempts of the FSH, which results in a longer follicular phase and a longer cycle.
But other times the FSH may succeed in producing a mature egg quickly, leading to a shorter follicular phase and a shorter cycle.
My cycles used to be very regular. But since last year, they‘ve become quite sporadic. I may go without a period for 2 months. Then I’ll get a light period, followed by a heavy one in less than a month.
What about you? Have you notice any changes in your cycles?
This change is natural and inevitable, and there’s not much you can do about it. However, it’s important to pay attention and learn to differentiate unusual signs from normal changes.
Progesterone is considered a soothing hormone. It stimulates GABA receptors, a neurotransmitter that helps reduce stress, increase relaxation, balance moods, alleviate pain, and promote sleep.
When our body produces the right amount of progesterone, we feel relaxed and levelheaded – and we sleep better. But when progesterone levels take a dive during perimenopause or in the week leading up to menstruation, we may become more easily agitated or anxious, and have trouble sleeping at night.
If you used to sleep well but begin to experience sleep disturbances as you get older (for example, you’re in your late 30s, 40s or 50s), low progesterone could be a cause of your insomnia.
As it turns out, estrogen and progesterone not only regulate our menstrual cycles, but may also affect headache-related chemicals in the brain, according to Mayo Clinic.
Having steady estrogen levels may improve headaches, while experiencing a dip in estrogen levels can make headaches worse. As we know, estrogen levels drop around menstruation, as well as during perimenopause and menopause.
So it’s no surprise that many women experience headaches and migraines during these times when significant hormonal changes are occurring. Or they may find that their headaches get worse (more intense or more frequent) in perimenopause.
Worse PMS (Estrogen Dominance)
As progesterone levels decrease during perimenopause, estrogen levels may appear to be higher relative to progesterone. This causes a pattern of hormonal imbalance called estrogen dominance.
Estrogen dominance underlies various menstrual disharmonies, such as PMS, irritability, anxiety, and mood swings, etc. So during perimenopause you may notice worse PMS symptoms.
Perimenopause is a period of big changes for women. This is understandable, because it’s an important life transition for women to move from the archetypes of Maiden and Mother to Crone (the Wise Woman).
There are things you can do, however, to make this process as smooth and as graceful as possible. For example, you may not be able to control your periods from becoming irregular, but you can certainly do something to improve other signs of low progesterone in perimenopause such as PMS, insomnia, and headaches.
What Are the Possible Causes of Low Progesterone
There are 7 common reasons that can cause progesterone levels to be low:
1. Lack of Ovulation
After ovulation, the dominant follicle is transformed into a corpus luteum, which releases progesterone to supply nutrients to the uterus for a potential implantation. If ovulation does not occur, the progesterone level will remain low.
2. Estrogen Dominance
When estrogen levels are too high, progesterone level will become relatively low. And there may be signs of estrogen dominance, as well as symptoms of progesterone deficiency, even though the serum level is normal.
3. Adrenal Fatigue
Although progesterone is mostly made in the ovaries, a small amount is produced in the adrenal glands, where it can be converted to other hormones, such as cortisol – the main stress hormone.
When there is a high demand for cortisol, the body will take pregnenolone (the precursor hormone for progesterone) to make cortisol, resulting in low progesterone levels.
See if you have any of the 7 most common signs of adrenal fatigue.
4. Aging Ovaries
When we get older, our ovaries make fewer ripe eggs and ovulation may not take place every month. This will cause a gradual decline of progesterone production during perimenopause.
5. Progesterone Resistance
If there is an increased amount of cortisol in the body, it competes with progesterone for progesterone receptors. When progesterone cannot bind with a receptor because it’s blocked by cortisol, it cannot enter the cell to perform its functions.
6. Low Thyroid
The body needs adequate thyroid hormone to produce pregnenolone (the mother hormone) from cholesterol, which then makes progesterone. If you have an underperforming thyroid, your body may fail to produce enough progesterone as well.
7. High Prolactin
Prolactin is a hormone in the pituitary that controls lactation in women. High prolactin suppresses the ovarian function, which reduces the secretion of progesterone and estrogen.
For more detailed explanantion, read my post the 7 most common causes of low progesterone.
How Can I Increase My Progesterone Levels Naturally
Ovulation is the key to the regular, monthly production of progesterone during the fertile years.
This is because ovulation triggers the release of progesterone. If ovulation does not take place, your progesterone level will remain low.
Here’s how you can increase your monthly production of progesterone naturally:
1. Eat Foods that Promote Ovulation
In addition to stress and poor health, nutritional deficiency is a primary cause of infertility – and lack of ovulation.
2. Take L-arginine
L-arginine is an amino acid that helps widen and relax arteries and blood vessels, increasing blood flow in the body.
At a dose of 6 grams per day, it’s been shown to improve the blood supply to the corpus luteum (the egg follicle that releases progesterone after ovulation), which results in improved progesterone levels.
3. Try Vitex
Researchers believe that vitex increases the release of LH (luteinizing hormone) from the pituitary, which raises progesterone and normalizes the second half of the menstrual cycle. It may also reduce prolactin, which suppresses the production of progesterone.
Even though the exact cause is still unknown, viex has been proven to help treat low progesterone in more than 60 years of clinical research, including 5 randomized trials. And in Germany, it’s an approved remedy for menstrual irregularity, PMS, and breast pain.
If you want to give vitex a try, consider a vitex supplement or Fertility Blend, a proprietary formula of viex and agnolyt (one of the best-known exacts of chasteberry). Dr. Sara Gottfried, an expert in women’s health, recommends this formulation after years of testing products, following studies, and experimenting the benefits for her patients.
Learn more about vitex’s fertility benefits and how to use vitex.
4. Check out Bio-identical Progesterone Cream
Progesterone cream is made from plant steroids found in the wild yam, which is identical to that produced by a woman’s ovaries. Because it’s a bioidentical hormone, it supports the body’s progesterone level with minimum side effects.
It can help balance the estrogen level, reducing the symptoms of estrogen dominance such as PMS, irregular periods, infertility, cystic breasts, PCOS, fibroids, endometriosis, and even cancer.
To learn more, read my post natural supplements to increase progesterone.
Maintaining adequate progesterone levels is one of the keys to solving the hormone puzzle. So, please take your time to digest this information and come up with a plan to improve your hormonal and overall health. A small but right action can make a noticeable difference.
And as always, please leave a comment to share your questions and experiences.
Vitex (proven to help treat low progesterone and regulate menstrual cycles in more than 60 years of clinical research, including 5 randomized trials)
Vitamin B6 (one of the best vitamins to boost progesterone)
Progesterone Cream (bio-identical hormonal support)
Reduce Estrogen Dominance
Liver Cleanse Detox and Repair Formula (support liver functions)
Dim Plus (improve estrogen metabolism)
Support Adrenal and Thyroid Functions
Adrenal Health Daily Support (promote overall hormone balance)
Thyroid Support Complex (support energy and metabolism)
Once Daily Organic Whole Food Vitamin Supplement (provide essential nutrients for health and hormone balance)
Liquid Iron (support healthy blood)
The Hormone Cure, by Dr. Sara Gottfried
Cooking for Hormone Balance, by Magdalena Wszelaki