Hormone Lesson #3: It’s All About the Progesterone, Baby

Read Hormone Lesson #1 here and Hormone Lesson #2 here.

And here we are, finally. Progesterone.

A word you’ve actually heard of (hopefully. But if not, you’ll have it down by the end of this post).

Before I went through the great fibroid-fiasco-of-2018, I knew the basics of the hormones that were most important to women: estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone.

But I didn’t really understand how they worked together. Or what each of them did. And so, my dear lady, I’m guessing you might be in a similar boat as I was just a year ago. Because I want you to have more control over your body and life, and have a wealth of information from which to make decisions about it, I want you to know as much about these three hormones as possible.

We are beginning with progesterone because it is made directly from pregnenolone, which we talked about last week.

So, What Is It Exactly?

Progesterone is a steroid hormone (got that? Check). One of the things that floored me when I finally started learning about hormones is that our body only produces it after ovulation (I can’t begin to tell you how many health professionals don’t seem to know this).

That means if you don’t ovulate, you won’t produce progesterone. So yep, if you are on birth control that suppresses ovulation, you actually produce NO progesterone. That means you are in what Dr. Lara Briden calls a “chemical menopause.”

Okay, okay, back to ovulating and progesterone. The reason you have to ovulate to produce progesterone is because ovulation triggers the development of the corpus luteum, which is a temporary endocrine gland.

Lookie, here it is, all cute and floaty!

Image courtesy of Repropedia

As you can see at the top of the image, that follicle developing during the FOLLICULAR phase (imagine that?), otherwise known as days 6-11ish of your cycle, releases a mature egg and voila! the corpus luteum forms and lo and behold, secrets our favorite hormone of the day during the LUTEAL phase, progesterone.

‘K, So What Does It Do? (aka Why Should I Care About It?)

Here’s the thing. You’re gonna read ALL kinds of stuff about how progesterone is magnificent, and then you’ll read ALL kinds of other stuff that says it’s the worst (though not on an Estrogen Dominance Support Group, which I do recommend looking into if you want to understand progesterone therapy or having, well, Estrogen Dominance).

Thing is, we need ALL the hormones. Not one is bad. The problem comes into play when the ratios are off, and things get too low or to high. But before I get into that, let’s talk about the good things progesterone does for our body:

Whew! That’s a lot of good stuff. And here are some conditions that are associated with low progesterone:

  1. Acne
  2. Fibroids (don’t I know it!)
  3. Infertility
  4. Miscarriage
  5. Endometriosis
  6. Osteoporosis
  7. Ovarian cysts
  8. Hair loss
  9. Heavy periods
  10. Amenorrhea (lack of period)
  11. PMS
  12. PCOS

Photo by Autumn Goodman

So Isn’t It Great I Get Progesterone In My Birth Control?

Nope. Full Stop. No matter what your doctor tells you, the stuff you find in birth control – progestin – is NOT the same thing as the progesterone your body produces (or that you can get from bioidentical progesterone therapy). They have a different chemical structure. Progestins are known for thickening the mucus in the cervix so that the sperm can’t get in and do its jobbie-job. They also stop ovulation.

Because it stops ovulation, it comes with a lot of possible side effects (our body doesn’t really want ovulation to be suppressed). Here are some of those:

  • Blood sugar issues
  • Changes in vaginal bleeding
  • Skin rashes
  • Depression
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Weakness
  • Headache or migraine
  • Numbness or pain in arms, legs, chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Change in coordination or vision
  • Amenorrhea
  • Breast tenderness
  • Bone density loss

So now let’s talk about what too much progesterone (either made in your body or the bioidentical version) can do.

It’s not really easy to note the negatives about too much natural progesterone that the body produces itself. For one, it is rarely a problem; due to the ovulation issues that women have, the fact that progesterone is only being produced half the month compared to estrogen showing up nearly the full month, and the fact that cortisol can “steal” progesterone’s pathway, which happens more than it should in our stressed out culture, you rarely find a woman with too much progesterone.

Of course, your body can get too much if you get on prescription or supplementary forms of it, which is why I always recommend testing your hormones (DUTCH is the crème de la crème of hormonal testing these days, which I’ll talk about more in a later post) and working with a knowledgeable health practitioner before hitting that Amazon ‘buy now’ button.

Possible side effects in that case include literally everything listed for progestins. But again, those only tends to be a possibility when you are supplementing with it, and they are usually rare.

Okay, I Totally Deal With A Bunch Of The Stuff You Mentioned Above That Happens With Low Progesterone. How Do I Naturally Increase My Production Of This Awesome Hormone?

Luckily, there are lots of great ways to boost your progesterone production naturally. Some of my favorites include:

  1. Seed cycling – flax and pumpkin seeds during the follicular phase (first half of your cycle) to support estrogen; sesame and sunflower seeds during your luteal phase (after ovulation) to support progesterone
  2. Chaste Berry (Vitex) – this actually helps to regulate your pituitary, balancing all of your sex hormones
  3. Vitamin C (whole food versions only, please! It has the ability to directly increase your progesterone)
  4. Iodine (make sure you test for Hashimotos before supplementing with this)
  5. Magnesium (and if you don’t get enough Calcium in your diet, a Cal/Mag blend). There are much better brands available than what you find on Amazon. Almost everyone with low progesterone needs to supplement with Mag because there simply isn’t enough in our soil and it’s needed for virtually every body process. But eating lots of greens is good for both Mag and Cal.
  6. Zinc (high in shellfish, pumpkin seeds, beef, and chickpeas)
  7. Beef liver pills. Seriously, my favorite supplement these days for a variety of ailments, including wacky hormones. It regulates iron levels, has a ton of natural Vitamin D, lots of selenium (great for your thyroid!), Vitamin A, and a crap load of natural B12 AND a ton of Omega-3 fatty acids. These are all important in hormone regulation.
  8. DIM (this is actually to reduce estrogen, which can help balance progesterone levels)
  9. Work with your adrenals. As you learned in last week’s session, if your adrenals are being pushed to their limits via stress or trauma, cortisol is gonna steal that pathway from progesterone, and then you’re stuck with lower levels of progesterone. Not cool, cortisol. But the only way to shift this is some serious lifestyle and diet changes.
  10. Liver support. Warm water with lemon every morning. Get your beets on. Glutathione before bed  – here’s my favorite brand (if you want it about $10 cheaper, click on the “Emerson Wellevate” photo on the right and register for my dispensary). Milk thistle.
  11. Cut down on/out sugar. Sugar increases insulin and estrogen production, throwing off ovulation and causing an imbalance with progesterone. Make sure you are getting enough good protein and a medium amount of good fats (some people do better on more fat, and others on less. Your digestion will tell you).
  12. Go to bed by 11pm at the latest (10pm is better). Regulating your cortisol, which in turn helps to regulate your progesterone, won’t happen if you aren’t getting to bed at a decent hour. Yes, I know it feels virtually impossible. But no, that’s not true. You gotta prioritize (remember, you have control of your life!).

(In case you were wondering, I DON’T recommend taking all these supplements at once! It’s a lot on your body to do so, and you’ll have no idea what is working and what isn’t. While I’m legally unable to give you specific recommendations, beef liver pills and Vitamin C are extremely supportive, along with Mag [and possibly Cal] at night before bed.

Increase your food consumption of Zinc through the foods noted above, and Iodine via sea vegetables, and seed cycling is easy peasy, nutritionally supportive, and yum. If you’re in a pretty bad menstrual state, chat with your health practitioner about adding in the Chaste Berry [most functional medicine practitioners recommend supplementing with this herb for no longer than 3-6 months]).

Photo by Edward Cisneros

Alright, What’s The Deal With All These Ladies Being On Bioidentical Progesterone?

The fact of the matter is that a woman’s body starts producing less progesterone as she heads into perimenopause. Couple that withe the birth control, chemicals in our environment and food, and stress, and a lot of women are seeing dips in their progesterone levels even in their 20s and 30s.

The thing is, there are many women who are flourishing in their late 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond thanks to this little thing we call bioidentical progesterone. Sometimes with very high, off-the-chart levels of it. They suffered for years before going to a practitioner who understood what was going on. So I implore you (even if you are in your 20s or 30s, but particularly once you hit your 40s), and you are suffering with any of the issues I mentioned earlier that might be related to low progesterone, to:

  • Find a good functional medicine practitioner who understands hormones
  • Who knows how to actually read and properly assess hormone tests (not just say, “things are in range!”)
  • Understands that testing at the proper time of the month is essential because you will not produce progesterone until you have ovulated
  • Knows that it’s about the ratio of estrogen and progesterone (and to a certain extent, testosterone), and not simply if your estrogen or progesterone levels are “normal”
  • Will work with you over months to find the right level of progesterone therapy, if that is your issue. Which you can tell. Because you took the test.

Yes, I know it’s expensive. Yes, I know it can take some time. Yes, I know it’s unfair our insurance doesn’t cover this stuff. But this is your life, you are suffering everyday, and things only get worse if you don’t do something about it now. Your broken body will have the last word. Plus, I guarantee you will save money in the long run because you’ve found out the root cause, instead of throwing a bunch of money at things that don’t work. /end rant

Alright, I think that’s enough for today’s lesson! Did I miss anything about progesterone that you want covered? Feel free to send me an email if so.

Next time, DHEA!

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