Progesterone is one of the two primary hormones that drive female fertility. We make progesterone once ovulation has taken place in our menstrual cycle and if there’s no pregnancy, it naturally declines until our period arrives.
What are the signs that you might be low in progesterone?
In the lead up to your period, do you notice that:
- You crave sugar
- Retain fluid
- You experience bloating
- Anxious feelings increase
- You’re easily tearful
- You can’t get your breath past your heart
Maybe you’ve noticed these changes as you approach, or experience perimenopause? These can all be signs that your progesterone levels are low.
Progesterone is such a crucial hormone, especially when it comes to feeling calm and content, yet in Dr Libby’s two decades of practice she has only ever come across a tiny number of women who’ve had optimal levels.
Most of your progesterone is made by the ovary you ovulated from that month, a small amount can also be made by your adrenal glands and in some areas of the brain. Generally speaking, if you don’t ovulate, you won’t make sufficient progesterone and that’s when you can experience many of the symptoms listed above. It’s also important to note that you can still get your period and not have ovulated that month. Or you may have ovulated, but due to other reasons, not have been able to make a robust enough surge of progesterone, needed to keep the above symptoms at bay.
Even if we do ovulate but we’re experiencing a relentless output of stress hormones—which is an everyday occurrence for many people these days—this can have a significant impact on our progesterone levels.
One way stress impacts progesterone is this: when we experience ongoing stress or worry, our stress hormones communicate to our body that our life is in danger and, therefore, that it isn’t an ideal time for us to ovulate. Since progesterone—think ‘pro-gestation’—is linked to fertility, the body thinks it’s doing you a favour by not allowing you to ovulate and therefore produce less progesterone. Yet, as progesterone has other roles in the body besides fertility, you can then experience the many symptoms of low progesterone, such as an increase in anxious feelings and bloating, particularly in the lead up to your period.
One powerful way to foster healthy progesterone levels across the menstruation and perimenopausal years is to support the health of the ovarian follicles themselves. You want to do everything you can to support your body ovulating for all the wonderful benefits this brings.
The nutrients that the ovaries need to function well and the best food sources of them include:
- Iodine: Seaweeds, such as kelp and nori, and salt (although not all salt contains iodine so always check the label to be sure).
- Selenium: Brazil nuts are by far the richest source. Tiny amounts can be found in eggs and some seafood.
- Zinc: Sustainably grown oysters from clean waters, red meats, and there is a small amount in eggs, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds.
- Magnesium: Green leafy vegetables, tahini, seeds, nuts, nut butter, seaweed, and raw cacao.
- Vitamin D: sunshine (not a food, obviously!) and we obtain small amounts from liver, oily fish, eggs, and mushrooms grown in sunlight
Further to that, since we know that stress hormone production directly impacts upon progesterone production, you want to work on doing everything you can to soothe the body’s stress response and support adrenal function.
The key here is to communicate calm to the body as regularly as possible. You may like to increase restorative and soothing practices like meditation, breathwork, restorative yoga or tai chi and decrease your intake of caffeine which stimulates the production of adrenaline.
Traditional herbal medicines such as paeonia, licorice, Siberian ginseng, chamomile and withania contain properties that have been shown to support the nervous system and/or adrenal function.