You’ve got to hand it to progesterone. For years, it’s flown under everyone’s radar, lingering quietly in the shadows of its flashier sister-hormone, estrogen.
That's all starting to change, though, as researchers have begun to understand all of the amazing things this unsung hormonal hero can do to boost physical and mental health.
Here are seven things you need to know about women’s other primary sex hormone and how you can support it in your own body.
We all know estrogen. It’s the female sex hormone that’s responsible for making women, women. But in many ways, progesterone is just as important. In naturally-cycling women, progesterone levels rise after ovulation and remain high until right before you get your period.
Progesterone levels rise after ovulation and remain high until right before you get your period.
And if estrogen is your energetic sex kitten hormone (which it is…it’s no coincidence that most women desire sex more at times in the cycle when estrogen is high), progesterone is your inner earth mother. It helps get your body and brain ready for the possibility that an egg might implant and pregnancy might occur. This is why women often feel hungrier and sleepier when progesterone is dominant than they do at other points in the cycle.
Progesterone Is an Inner Chill Pill
When progesterone is broken down in the body, it releases chemical compounds called metabolites that simulate the effects of neurotransmitter GABA in the brain. This is the same neurotransmitter system that gets activated in response to having a glass of wine, doing yoga, or cozying up by the fire in your PJs. It calms the brain down and makes us feel relaxed and content.
Unbalanced progesterone = unbalanced you.
Not surprisingly, having too little progesterone and its metabolites is linked with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. This is one of the reasons that hormonal transitions like puberty and perimenopause can be a mental health nightmare for women. Unbalanced progesterone = unbalanced you.
Progesterone Regulates Stress...Which Is More Than Just Stress
Progesterone and its metabolites also help regulate our stress response. This is a big deal because, well, stress sucks. And it sucks a whole lot worse if we aren’t able to manage it properly. Many mood-related disorders — including major depression, postpartum depression, PTSD, and alcohol dependence — are characterized by (among other features) dysregulation of the stress response. Progesterone and its metabolites do such an amazing job of keeping the stress response in check that they can be effectively used to treat anxiety and depression, as well as related issues, like alcohol dependence, cocaine addiction, and postpartum depression.
Progesterone Helps Keep Inflammation In Check
Although inflammation is part of the process that the body uses to combat germs and recover from sickness or injury, chronic inflammation is bad news for the body. It promotes heart disease, cancers, autoimmunity, Alzheimer’s disease, and a bunch of other stuff you don’t want happening to your body. It’s also linked to mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and problems with cognitive function.
Progesterone is currently being tested as a therapy to treat symptoms of inflammatory disorders.
The good news is that progesterone is a potent anti-inflammatory. It keeps inflammation levels low and prevents the immune system from overreacting to everything that crosses its path (which is necessary for pregnancy to occur). Progesterone packs such a punch to inflammation that it’s currently being tested as a therapy to treat symptoms of inflammatory disorders, including multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's disease.
Progesterone Can Make Some Women Feel Worse
I know. More conflicting health information. But hear me out, especially if you get bad PMS. Research suggests that PMS is caused by women’s brains having a hard time adjusting to the changes in neurotransmitter GABA activity that occur when progesterone is relatively high. This is why the birth control pill — which irons out women's hormonal fluctuations and replaces them with a constant daily dose of synthetics — can be therapeutic to women with PMS.
You can minimize symptoms of PMS naturally by making simple diet and lifestyle modifications.
However, you don’t need to be on the pill to minimize PMS. You can support your hormonal health and minimize symptoms of PMS by making the simple diet and lifestyle modifications described below.
Progestins Are NOT The Same As Progesterone
Synthetic progesterone, or progestins (which are in the birth control pill and many other forms of prescription hormone therapy), are not the same thing as progesterone. Most of them are synthesized from testosterone, which means that they get broken down differently in the body. They don’t release the feel-good chemicals that are responsible for many of progesterone’s therapeutic effects. They can also have the effect of stimulating testosterone receptors, which can do things like make you break out and grow facial hair (yikes!). If you want all of the benefits of progesterone, you’ll have to ditch the pill and support your body’s natural production of this feel-good hormone.
You Can Support Progesterone Production Naturally
That’s right. You can help your body boost production of progesterone by taking good care of your body. In particular, you can support your body’s production and effective use of progesterone by eating a nutrient-dense diet rich in vitamins C and B6, magnesium, zinc, and Omega-3 fatty acids. Research also suggests that managing stress can improve progesterone production.
Eat a nutrient-dense diet rich in vitamins C and B6, magnesium, zinc, and Omega-3 fatty acids.
If you’re doing all of these things and still have low P, you can consider supporting progesterone production by supplementing with Vitex agnus-castus, using a micronized progesterone cream, or by supporting your thyroid. These latter two should only be done under the care of a health care provider, though, since they require testing and monitoring.
Progesterone plays a huge and beneficial role in our bodies, so let’s educate ourselves for our own sakes.