One of the biggest hormone problems that plagues women is having low progesterone levels. On some level this is natural: it happens during menopause, perimenopause and in periods of hormonal flux. These natural fluctuations can be mitigated with diet and lifestyle to an extent, but they may on some small level just have to be tolerated for a while. Some women supplement with progesterone cream throughout menopause and find that this eases their symptoms. On the other hand, many women on natural paleo-type diets find they can stop supplementing progesterone and remain symptom-free.
Nonetheless: a diagnosis of low progesterone is fairly common even among women of reproductive age. This occurs to two classes of women: first, the estrogen dominant, and secondly, the stressed.
If you are estrogen dominant, you may have other symptoms: these include being overweight, experiencing PMS, experiencing menstrual cramps, decreased libido, bloating, breast swelling and tenderness, fibrocystic breasts, PMS-related headaches, mood swings, and thyroid malfunction.
A couple decades ago, most researchers thought that these symptoms were a result of high estrogen levels alone. Today, researchers typically acknowledge that it is more a problem of imbalance with progesterone rather than high estrogen in and of itself that causes most of these problems, such that the diagnosis “high estrogen” may also mean “low progesterone.” It is hard to tell: the variables are too closely linked.
For this reason, if your true diagnosis is estrogen dominance, you may want to experiment with the guidelines I outline in The Estrogen Dominance Post.
If, on the other hand, your problem is not high estrogen per se but actually low progesterone levels, you have few avenues available to you.
Progesterone is synthesized fairly early in the hormonal cascade, and it’s activity is highly influenced by the level of stress–either physical or emotional–a woman is experiencing. I wrote about this in a post about a year ago, titled “The HPA axis: what is pregnenolone steal?”
Another way to describe pregnenolone steal is as progesterone steal.
Pregnenolone is the primary “precursor” hormone. It sits at the top of the food chain and is directed to be used by the body however it sees fit.
If a woman is stressed, her body “steals” the pregnenolone for stress hormone production instead of progesterone production. This means that other female hormones also take a hit — accounting for why some women have low hormone levels across the board — but progesterone is one of the hardest hit. If a woman has low progesterone in her labs, it’s a pretty good bet that her body is using her resources to produce cortisol rather than the good stuff.
For this reason, reducing stress is actually the only clinically well-known way to increase progesterone production.
This isn’t an easy answer. Stress reduction takes real work. We cannot just promise to sleep more or to spend more time with ourselves or our families, and then let these promises drift away as life marches on. Instead, we have to make concrete changes to our schedules, to our jobs, to our relationships, to our feelings about our existence. Often, psychologists can be uniquely helpful, as can group involvement, friendship, spiritual communities, and yoga and meditation.
Stress levels can also be reduced by making sure to eat a nourishing diet that doesn’t have any kind of a starvation component. Eat when you are hungry, and do your absolute best to assure your hypothalamus that it has nothing to stress about.
Symptoms of low progesterone (without estrogen dominance) include classic hypothalamic amenorrheic symptoms: irregular cycles, infertility, anxiety, low libido. If you reduce your stress levels, you may see these problems slowly tick away. Perhaps most delightfully, progesterone is well-known as carrying with it significant libido-enhancing power. Reduce your stress, and your sex life make thank you, too.