Progesterone: Definition, Function and Problems with Low Levels of This Hormone

This hormone is related to fertility and menstruation.

Progesterone is a steroid hormone that is secreted by the corpus luteum , a temporary endocrine gland that the female body produces after ovulation during the second half of the menstrual cycle.

What does progesterone do?

Progesterone prepares the endometrium for potential pregnancy after ovulation. Activates the lining to thicken and accept a fertilized egg.

It also prohibits muscle contractions in the uterus that could cause the body to reject an egg. As long as the body produces high levels of progesterone, the woman will not ovulate.

If the woman does not become pregnant, the corpus luteum breaks down, reducing progesterone levels in the body and consequently causing menstruation.

If the body conceives, progesterone continues to stimulate the body to provide the blood vessels in the endometrium that will feed the growing fetus. The hormone also prepares the limit of the uterus even more so that it can accept the fertilized egg.

It also helps prepare the breasts to make milk.

Possible problems with progesterone production

Women who have low progesterone levels will have abnormal menstrual cycles or may have difficulty conceiving because progesterone does not trigger the proper environment for a conceived egg to grow.

Women who have low progesterone levels and who manage to become pregnant have a higher risk of miscarriage or premature delivery, because the hormone helps maintain the pregnancy.

Signs of low progesterone include:

  • Abnormal uterine bleeding
  • Irregular or missed periods.
  • Spotting and abdominal pain during pregnancy.
  • Frequent abortions.

Also, low progesterone levels can cause estrogen levels that are too high, which can decrease sexual desire, contribute to weight gain, or cause gallbladder problems .

Questions to ask your doctor

For women who are struggling to conceive or carry a pregnancy, the emotional toll of the struggle is high. While you should look for all possible causes of this problem, it is valuable to talk to your doctor about your progesterone levels.

If this is the problem, treatment is not difficult, but you should speak with your doctor before starting supplementation. Consider asking these questions:

  • How can I determine if I have low progesterone levels?
  • What other conditions could be causing my symptoms?
  • How are low progesterone levels treated?
  • If I take supplemental progesterone, how long should I take it or when should I stop taking it?

Signs of low progesterone can lead to symptoms such as hormonal imbalance in women. When progesterone gets too low, you can experience a variety of unpleasant symptoms of hormonal imbalance. These may include:

Estrogen Domain (ED):  This is one of the main causes of low progesterone.

Here’s an analogy that will help you understand the relationship between estrogen and progesterone: estrogen is what makes grass grow and progesterone is like the lawnmower that removes grass.

Once the estrogen is too high (raising the grass) and the progesterone is too low (cutting the grass), the grass loses control, this is how a condition like estrogen dominance develops .

When estrogen dominates there is also a strong risk of breast cancer, so it is important to protect yourself if you suspect that you have low progesterone.

So it is not surprising that research from the University of Adelaide in Australia has confirmed that progesterone may be beneficial in treating breast cancer.

Fertility or menstrual problems:  Estrogen grows the lining of your uterus to prepare it for conception (remember the herb analogy above).

But progesterone also plays an important role, ensuring that the lining stays there for about 14 days after ovulation (luteal phase) in case you get pregnant.

If you conceive, the progesterone rises. Otherwise, progesterone levels drop again and cause the uterine lining to shed which we know as menstruation.

However, when progesterone is chronically low, this process does not work and the progesterone spike may not occur. Then you may have very heavy irregular periods or problems conceiving.

You may also experience premenstrual migraines and more intense PMS symptoms.

High anxiety and low mood: Progesterone has antidepressant and anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) actions, courtesy of its metabolites: 5α and 5β-allopregnanolone.

These help increase levels of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a neurotransmitter that has calming effects on the brain.

Insomnia : Low progesterone levels have been linked to poor sleep, especially trouble falling asleep.

Weight gain and cellulite: If you are low on progesterone, your body will not burn fat stores for energy. Plus, you lose progesterone’s anti-catabolic benefits, which help protect your muscle tissue, especially when you’ve had a rough week.

Your body will not burn fat, instead it will draw glucose into the bloodstream, which often means that your body begins to break down muscle tissue to provide this quick energy source. This in turn can lead to the production of cellulite.

Fluid retention: Progesterone is a natural diuretic, it prevents your cells from absorbing excess sodium and water, so it can help reduce fluid retention.

When progesterone levels drop too low, women complain that they retain fluids during the day (especially in the legs, ankles, and tummy), find that their rings feel too tight for their fingers, plus they look swollen in the face and breasts.

Brain Fog: Brain functions benefit from progesterone. It is also involved in the production of the myelin sheath, which protects your nerve cells.

It’s so important to brain health that Emory University research indicates the benefits of giving progesterone to help people recover from traumatic brain injury and stroke.

Sagging skin: the skin remains supple when there is enough progesterone, which helps stimulate collagen production.

Thyroid problems:  As already mentioned, the low amount of progesterone leads to estrogen dominance, which can interfere with the conversion of inactive thyroid hormone T4 to active thyroid hormone T3.