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One of the biggest hormone problems that plagues women is having low progesterone levels.
In some cases, this is somewhat natural: it happens during menopause, perimenopause and in periods of hormonal flux.
Nonetheless: a diagnosis of low progesterone is fairly common even among women of reproductive age. This occurs to two main groups of women: first, the estrogen dominant, and secondly, the stressed.
Low progesterone and estrogen dominance
Estrogen dominance is the condition of having too much estrogen relative to progesterone.
Symptoms of estrogen dominance include being overweight, PMS, menstrual cramps, decreased libido, bloating, breast swelling and tenderness, fibrocystic breasts, endometriosis, PMS-related headaches, mood swings, and thyroid malfunction.
You can become estrogen dominant if progesterone levels fall too low – yet you can also experience symptoms of low progesterone if estrogen levels become too high. Phytoestrogens in the diet, birth control pills, inflammation, and a sedentary lifestyle are a few of the many ways to cause unnaturally high estrogen levels. Check out this post on estrogen dominance for more.
Low progesterone and pregnenolone steal
Hormones are produced in a cascade. I like to think of the system like a set of dominoes: the hypothalamus (a part of the brain) tells certain glands like the pituitary and adrenal glands how hard to work, then their own hormones go on to signal to other hormones, and on and on. The dominoes fall in a perfectly regimented pattern if all of the surrounding dominoes do their jobs, too.
Unfortunately, when things go wrong early on in the hormone production process, there can be many significant problems down the line.
Progesterone is affected by one such problem.
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 name for pregnenolone steal is as progesterone steal.
Pregnenolone is the primary “precursor” hormone. It sits at the top of the domino chain and is directed to be used by the body however it sees fit. The primary decision the body makes with pregnenolone is whether it wants to make sex hormones like progesterone or stress hormones like cortisol.
If a woman is stressed, her body “steals” the pregnenolone and uses it 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 progesterone.
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. Physical stress is nearly as important to address for this as emotional stress. 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.
This is a common theme for women’s health. Stress can have a very significant impact on us — far more so than it does on men.
Why? It is actually an evolutionary adaptation. The female body needs to protect itself against becoming pregnant at a time of famine, war, or other kind of life-threatening strife. The way it does so is by shutting down hormone production whenever stress appears to be too strong or chronic. Stress indicates that it may not be a “safe” enough environment to be pregnant.
Hormones may be a complex and challenging part of being a woman – but they can also be a rewarding one. The trick is simply to learn how to raise a white flag and stop being in a state of constant warfare against the body – and instead start practicing how to live in harmonious dialogue. I talk in great depth about how to do so in my best-seller – Sexy by Nature – which you can take a look at at Amazon, here. It was a real adventure, but I finally learned how to do it (and get my progesterone levels back up!), and you most certainly can, too.
What about you? Are you low in progesterone? What success have you had working with it?