Healthy Progesterone Levels Diet
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
Progesterone is a female sex hormone produced mainly by the ovaries following ovulation each month. Progesterone helps to regulate your cycle, but its main job is to get your uterus ready for pregnancy. Progesterone is made by a cyst on the ovary called the corpus luteum which provides sufficient blood flow to help ensure normal progesterone production.
After women ovulate, progesterone helps to thicken the lining of the uterus, ready for egg implantation. If there is no fertilized egg, progesterone levels drop and a period begins.
If a fertilized egg does implant into the uterine wall, progesterone helps to maintain the uterine lining throughout pregnancy and prevent miscarriage. Progesterone is not present in any food, but research has shown that some foods may promote the body’s production of progesterone. More about this soon.
Symptoms of low progesterone if not pregnant
- Headaches or migraines
- Mood changes, including anxiety or depression
- Low sex drive
- Hot flushes/flashes
- Irregularity of menstrual cycle, abnormal uterine bleeding, irregular or absent periods
Symptoms of low progesterone during pregnancy
- Spotting and abdominal pain
- Breast tenderness
- Low blood sugar
- Vaginal dryness
- Low progesterone can sometimes also indicate toxaemia or ectopic pregnancy, which can sometimes result in miscarriage.
Low progesterone and estrogen dominance
Without adequate progesterone, estrogen can become the dominant hormone which can lead to symptoms including:
- Weight gain
- Lower sex drive, mood swings and depression
- PMS, irregular menstrual cycle, heavy bleeding
- Breast tenderness, fibrocystic breasts
- Fibroids, endometriosis
- Gallbladder problems
- Thyroid dysfunction
Testing progesterone levels
Progesterone levels fluctuate throughout the menstrual cycle, peaking about seven days before your period and should be higher than normal during pregnancy.
Poorly functioning ovaries, adrenal fatigue, and hormonal imbalances anywhere in the body (pineal, pituitary, thyroid) can result in poor progesterone production. Men, children, and postmenopausal women all have lower progesterone levels than women in their childbearing years or during pregnancy.
A simple blood progesterone test (PGSN) can help your practitioner determine whether your progesterone levels are too low. Alternatively, some women get their progesterone levels checked along with other hormones via a saliva test sent to a private laboratory.
If you have low progesterone, you might not have any symptoms and may not need to treat it. But because you are reading this article, then the chances are that you have symptoms of low progesterone and want to alleviate them, or you are trying to have a baby and want to increase your progesterone levels to improve your chances of having a healthy pregnancy and carrying full term.
Now there is hormone replacement therapy, but here we are looking at more natural ways to support progesterone with your diet. Also speak to your health practitioner about progesterone supporting herbs as they can be very helpful.
Progesterone is also important for women who have had hysterectomies or are post-menopausal, even though levels naturally drop with menopause. More importantly is the ratio between progesterone and estrogen because progesterone commonly drops faster than estrogen, giving rise to estrogen dominant situations and their accompanying risks.
The adrenal glands and progesterone
It is also important to address your stress level, as cortisol (a stress hormone) is released instead of progesterone in periods of high stress, which by default reduces progesterone production in favour of the ‘fight or flight’ response which the body sees as more important at that moment.
Luteal phase defect and progesterone
A condition called a Luteal Phase Defect (LPD) is often associated with low progesterone levels which can contribute to infertility or miscarriage. Reduced blood flow (which is associated with LPD) through the corpus luteum may decrease progesterone levels, while ample blood flow helps ensure normal progesterone production.
For ladies with LPD, micronutrients that enhance blood flow to the corpus luteum seem to improve progesterone production.
Another contributing factor to LPD may be an overabundance of free radicals. Free radicals are molecules that can damage cells and disrupt many bodily functions. Antioxidants like vitamin C can help to neutralize free radicals.
While there are no foods that contain progesterone, there are certain food nutrients that help the body to produce it.
Arginine and Vitamin E
L-arginine (an amino acid) and Vitamin E have been shown in Japanese studies to improve progesterone levels. Good amounts of Vitamin E can be found in sunflower seeds, almonds, hazelnuts, and peanut butter. High concentrations of L-arginine can be found in sesame seeds as a paste (tahini) or flour, unsweetened gelatine, and pumpkin seeds/pepitas.
Vitamin C sources include orange, grapefruit, tomatoes, broccoli, kiwifruit, capsicum/sweet (bell) pepper, and all berries.
B group vitamins
B group vitamins, especially B6 are important for maintaining progesterone levels. B6 is found in meats, bananas, pistachios, and fish.
Zinc is a valuable nutrient for hormones in general which can be found in seafood, shellfish, and pumpkin seeds (pepitas).
Other great foods
Other foods that help the body to produce progesterone are magnesium rich foods such as green vegetables, and pro-progesterone herbs including oregano, thyme, and turmeric. The herb most widely used in naturopathic clinics to support progesterone levels is Vitex Agnes Castes (Chaste tree).
Before you commence your diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
Client name and identifying information changed
When Marie first visited me, she was getting a migraine every month just before her period. Called menstrual migraines, they were quite debilitating especially for her work and social life. Unfortunately, Marie wasn’t regular with her cycle so she couldn’t predict when a migraine would strike. She could however predict when she would get her period by the onset of a migraine.
Tests showed that her progesterone was on the low side of normal for most of the month and really low when it should be high in the week prior to her period. Her adrenal hormone cortisol was somewhat high, which indicated that her body was suffering from stress which was a possible reason for the low progesterone.
We spoke about stress which played a big part in Marie’s life. I felt the migraines were her body’s way of making her rest as she couldn’t get out of bed for at least 12 hours when one hit, and then she would be exhausted for another 12 or so hours.
So we spent some time discussing stress management and meditation and doing some gentle exercise, rather than her full on ‘spin’ classes (fast stationary bike racing) at the gym, which would also have been pushing her adrenaline button and increasing cortisol in favour of progesterone production.
Marie’s diet wasn’t the best as she ate a lot of carbs to keep her energy going (so she thought) which would have been making her blood sugar levels go up and down. Irregular blood sugar levels can also trigger a migraine for some people, especially when added to low progesterone at that time of month – another factor to take her over the threshold.
Due to her diet Marie also had an imbalance in her gut bacteria levels, but by removing all those carbs (except vegetable carbs) from her diet, the bacteria levels re-balanced nicely after a few months.
Apart from removing the gluggy carbs, I put Marie onto a low histamine diet because histamines are known to trigger migraines. I also included magnesium and potassium supplements along with some B group vitamins to try to calm down her adrenaline (cortisol) levels and relax her.
After only one month on the changed diet and the supplements she only had one mild migraine on her next cycle. Fortunately, she only needed the one container of the supplements as her new diet helped to keep things stable.
After the first month, we slowly reintroduced histamine foods to see if any brought on symptoms (as she did have some other random symptoms) but all was good. We then just focused on the progesterone and adrenal supporting foods.
She only had another migraine if she went a bit crazy (her words) by drinking at a party, having heaps of carbs/sugar or from getting super stressed at work.