Why Progesterone Is A Must For Your Best Fertility
Like estrogen, progesterone is a female sex hormone essential for growing a healthy baby – so essential, in fact, that it’s been nicknamed “the pro-gestation hormone” because without adequate amounts, a pregnancy is unlikely to occur. In order for a pregnancy to happen, not only does an egg need to be released and fertilized, but the resulting zygote needs to implant itself in the uterine lining to develop and mature. Without progesterone, the uterine lining could not transform into the thick, cozy, and inviting habitat necessary for implantation. Progesterone also stimulates cell division of the zygote (aka baby’s first growth spurt), helps prevent miscarriages, and thickens cervical mucus to protect against bacterial infections. So yeah… progesterone is pretty important!
How Is Progesterone Made?
Like estrogen, the production of progesterone in the ovaries is regulated by an area of the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus releases a hormone called gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which stimulates the anterior pituitary gland to secrete luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSL). FSL tells the ovaries to produce estrogen, and LH tells the ovaries to produce progesterone. When the level of progesterone is high enough, GnRH production shuts down. And, men and women also make a little bit of progesterone in our adrenal glands.
Throughout the menstrual cycle, estrogen and progesterone take turns being the dominant hormone: estrogen during the follicular phase of the cycle (the first half of the cycle before ovulation), and progesterone during the luteal phase of the cycle (the second half of the cycle after ovulation). If you’ve been utilizing the fertility awareness method (FAM) and have noticed a luteal phase lasting less than ten days, it’s time to get your progesterone levels tested. A short luteal phase is a common barrier to pregnancy because it doesn’t give the uterus enough time to thicken, decreasing the chances of successful implantation.
If you’re curious about which hormone tests are best for you, check out Fertility Testing and Lab Interpretation, where I give you the lowdown on several types of tests on the market.
Why Wouldn’t I Have Enough Progesterone?
There are several reasons why someone might have low progesterone, including an underactive thyroid, PCOS, increased levels of the hormone prolactin, and low cholesterol, but our main focus is going to be on stress and the adrenal glands.
The adrenals are two little glands that sit on top of your kidneys, regulating your metabolism and your response to stress. When your brain detects danger, your adrenals release the hormone cortisol, signaling your body to activate what I like to call “no place for a baby” mode: your liver releases glucose into the bloodstream, your digestion slows, and blood is shunted away from your reproductive organs. The pituitary gland also becomes less responsive to GnRH, reducing the secretion of LH and in turn, reducing the output of progesterone.
Back in the day when humans were hunting for their food and trying not to be prey themselves, this boost of cortisol helped them fight or flee to survive life-or-death situations. Once the stressor went away – we escaped the lion or caught the deer, say – cortisol levels returned to normal and reproductive function was restored.
Flash-forward to today’s world, and we have a totally different story. Your stress response can be activated on a chronic low-grade level for many hours a day, week after week, without ever getting shut off, trapping the body in “no place for a baby” mode. Think frustrating stop-and-go traffic on your daily commute, back-to-back work deadlines with no end in sight, swiping through your social media feed and comparing yourself to everyone and their mom 24/7 – even those “healthy” exercise and nutrition habits that you’ve been working so hard to implement can elicit a stress response if they aren’t right for your unique situation.
These may not seem like life-or-death, fight-or-flight situations to you, but unfortunately the brain and body perceive them as such, and it may be keeping you locked in sympathetic dominance if you don’t do anything to stop it. Some people equate a high-stressed, “sleep-when-you’re-dead” lifestyle with being a high performing, goal-oriented overachiever, but it can come at a significant cost to your health and fertility.
Signs You Might Not Have Enough Progesterone
The most obvious signs of low progesterone are irregular menstrual periods and short luteal phases, which are easiest to spot if you track your cycle using FAM. Other signs of low progesterone include:
- Low libido
- Hot Flashes
- Vaginal dryness
- Frequent breast soreness
- Spotting before your period
- Depression, anxiety, or mood swings
- Frequent headaches
If you’re unsure if low progesterone may be affecting your fertility, my free Root Cause Quiz will help you dial in on the sneaky stressors, environmental factors, and hormone imbalances that can lead to subfertility.
How To Improve Progesterone Levels
As we discussed above, chronic stress can play a major role in subfertility, increasing cortisol, and creating hormone imbalances. If you have PCOS, chronic stress can play an even greater role, as high levels of cortisol worsen insulin resistance, which in turn increases testosterone production.
Managing stress is often easier said than done, but managing stress does not mean eliminating stress. There will always be stress in our lives, we just need to develop coping mechanisms that improve our fertility rather than suppress it.
- Movement is a great way to let off some steam while increasing endorphins and supporting muscle and bone health. I use the term “movement” rather “exercise” to emphasize that any movement – dancing, walking, stretching, gardening – supports mental and physical health, not just cycling classes and HIIT. Just keep in mind that compulsive exercise – exercise done as a punishment for “unhealthy” eating, over-exercise that leads to injury, exercise that interferes with other important areas of your life – creates stress rather than relieves it. The important thing is to find something you enjoy doing.
- Getting enough sleep might not seem like a coping mechanism, but if you’re anything like me, you might’ve noticed that your snapping point is much lower when you’ve only had a few hours of sleep versus when you’ve gotten a full night’s rest. Lack of sleep also contributes to mood disorders like depression and anxiety, which can further heighten the feeling of stress.
- Making time for self-care might sound unimportant when you’ve got meetings to attend, papers to grade, or a full social calendar, but taking time to slow down and nurture your mind and body can significantly improve stress levels. This could be anything from playing with your pet for 15 minutes, taking a soothing bubble bath, reading before bed, getting a massage, learning to meditate, or simply enjoying a cup of hot tea with no distractions.
- Increase your social support by joining the Fueling Fertility Tribe, where you can ask questions, voice concerns, and connect with others going through similar ups-and-downs of the fertility journey.
- All of your sex hormones are made from cholesterol. This means that if you’re eating a diet low in fat, specifically saturated fat, you might not be supporting optimal hormone production. For decades, researchers linked high intakes of saturated fat with increased risk for heart disease, but recent research suggests that this connection might not be as linear as it once seemed. What does this mean for your fertility? Enjoy saturated fats, which come primarily from animal products like meat and dairy, but try to choose grass-fed options when you can. Grass-fed products are more nutrient-rich and have a better balance of saturated to unsaturated fats than conventionally produced animal products.
- Support your blood sugar by eating foods high in inositol, which can improve insulin resistance and proper hormone production. These include fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, whole wheat bread, and, if you can stomach it, liver products.
Again, there are many different underlying conditions that can cause low levels of progesterone, such as hypothyroidism, PCOS, or leaky gut. That’s why it is critical that you find your unique root cause(s). My Hormone Fix Bundle dives deep into the root causes of hormone imbalances, looking at sneaky stressors, nutrition, gut health, lab testing, and more to help you achieve hormone harmony.
Find what is stressing your hormones and unlock your fertility
Affiliate Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links which means, to no extra cost to you, I would make a small fee if you use them.
Improve Your In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) Success Rates
According to the National Conference of State Legislature, the average IVF cycle can cost anywhere...
What Does Nutrition Have To Do With My Fertility?
What Does Nutrition Have To Do With My Fertility? According to the National Institutes of Health,...
The Scoop On Coffee And Your Fertility
The Scoop On Coffee And Your Fertility The Benefits of Coffee “A day without coffee is like…just...
Sneaky Stress And What It Means For Your Fertility
No Need to Stress: We’ve Got You Covered The human body is essentially a culmination of cues...
Estrogen Detox: Why Hormones Are More Than Just How Much Or How Little You Have
Can Broccoli Help My PMS? Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is essentially a catch-all for the laundry...
A Dietitian’s Guide To Eating For Fertility
Can Food Improve Fertility? Absolutely! Food is not just fuel for your daily movements, food is...
Thinking Twice About Folic Acid For Pregnancy
Thinking Twice About Loading Up On Folic Acid For Fertility And Pregnancy If you’re reading this,...
Gut and Hormone Healing Bone Broth
What is bone broth? Bone broth is an ancient food that has been a part of many traditional...
What Does My Digestion Have To Do With My Fertility?
As you may already know from my earlier post, Functional Fertility is used to dive deeper into...
Why Tracking Ovulation On Your Phone Isn’t Enough
How You’ve Been Tracking Your Ovulation Wrong And How To Fix It We’ve been taught that...
Is Your Anxiety Hurting Your Fertility?
Anxiety and Fertility If you’ve been in the trying-to-conceive (TTC) world for any amount...
Forgotten Fertility Nutrients
Forgotten Fertility Nutrients According to a recent U.S. census, birthrates have declined...
Can Too Much Exercise Be a Bad Thing?
Can Too Much Exercise Be A Bad Thing? As with most things in life, moderation is...
It Takes Two to Tango: Why Sperm Health Matters
M Why It Takes Two To Tango Did you know that males are responsible for 20-30% of...
Explaining One Woman’s “Unexplained Infertility”
Who doesn't love a good testimony? Testimonies can provide inspiration, insight, and...
No Bake Chocolate Tart
Pictures above and recipe from Radiant Life Catalog Chocolate, Please! This is seriously...
Nourish Your Womb Tea
Are You Drinking Toxins in Your Coffee and Tea? If you know me you know that I friggin'...
Shining a Light on All Things Blue Light
What is Blue Light? I’m talking with Greg Yeutter today, founder of Bedtime Bulb, and...
Naturally Pregnant at the Age of 45
The Origin Story This has to be one of my most favorite Fertility Success Stories to...
The Hormone Test Every Woman Should Get
You Deserve Better Unfortunately, many women are lead to believe that their hormones are “fine”...
Functional Fertility vs. Standard Fertility
What is Functional Fertility? My personal definition of Functional Fertility goes something like...
Tahini Caramel Shortbread Bars | Vegan, Paleo
How To "Upgrade" Your Health In my Functional Fertility programs, I am all about upgrading the...
Top Five Supplements for Optimized Fertility
Why Even Take Supplements? As an Integrative and Functional Certified Practitioner, I have...
Post Birth Control Syndrome Success Story
Real People, Real Stories Let's get real, reviews these days are HUGE! I know people who will not...
Perfect Plantain Pancakes
If you're like me you have searched high and low for an easy, quick and ultimately delicious...
Creamy Oat Bran Breakfast Porridge
What is Oat Bran? Oat bran consists just of the outer husk of the whole oat groat… aka oatmeal. It...
What is “Functional” Medicine?
Functional medicine (FM) is an intelligent combination of conventional and alternative medicine...
Let’s Get Real: Why Are We Here?
"If your health is your true wealth, wouldn't you want to be filthy rich?" - Olivia Neely, RDN,...