What is progesterone and what does it do?
Progesterone is both a steroid and a hormone that is produced by men and women to regulate bodily functions.
Since it acts differently in the male and female body, we’ll discuss how progesterone behaves in women followed by its impact on men.
Progesterone in Women
Progesterone is one of the hormones that controls and helps regulate fertility and menstruation.
Progesterone is released by the corpus luteum, a temporary gland produced by the female body after ovulation.
It is technically a steroidal hormone that belongs to a larger class called progestogens.
Progesterone works closely together with estrogen to handle all things reproductive.
After ovulation, progesterone is secreted.
Progesterone prevents the uterus muscles from contracting and ultimately, rejecting an egg.
It also causes the endometrial lining to thicken and be able to receive a fertilized egg.
From here, progesterone’s role goes one of three ways:
If the woman becomes pregnant…
If the egg is fertilized and the woman becomes pregnant, progesterone will continue to play a key part in keeping mom and baby safe and healthy, by:
- Preparing the uterus to accept the fertilized egg
- Triggering blood vessel production in the endometrium for the developing fetus
- Preparing the breasts for lactation
- Preventing the body from producing more eggs
- Strengthening the pelvic walls for childbirth
During pregnancy, the placenta will also release progesterone, in addition to the corpus luteum, to keep levels high throughout gestation.
If the woman does NOT become pregnant…
If pregnancy does NOT occur, the corpus luteum will then break down and stop releasing progesterone.
At this point, progesterone levels are lowered.
Menstruation is then triggered upon this change!
Progesterone during perimenopause and menopause
When a woman enters perimenopause, progesterone production naturally begins to decline.
Once she enters menopause, progesterone levels drop significantly, similar to the amount normally seen in men.
This change is in fact so drastic to the body, that it's attributed to all (if not most) of menopausal symptoms in women.
Progesterone in men
Progesterone gets the most press for its role in reproduction on the female side, but men benefit from this powerful hormone as well.
In the male body, progesterone is produced by both the testes and the adrenal glands.
And importantly, men need progesterone in order to produce testosterone, aka the ‘bruh hormone’.
That’s right. There’s no testosterone without progesterone.
Speaking of what comes before what… there's no progesterone if there's no pregnenolone.
There's also no pregnenolone if there's no cholesterol! But that's a different article all together.
Since testosterone levels in men naturally decline with age, it’s a good idea to make sure the body has adequate progesterone to keep these levels high.
Later in life, the benefits of testosterone like hair-loss prevention, increased libido, etc. are usually what draw men to taking synthetic progesterone (progestins) in the first place.
Signs of low progesterone levels in women
- Irregular periods
- Spotting and/or abdominal pain during pregnancy
- Fertility issues
- Abnormal bleeding of uterus
- Pregnancy loss
- Weight gain*
- Decreased libido*
Since progesterone’s role in the female body is largely to regulate reproduction, most of the signs and symptoms of low progesterone are related to menstruation and pregnancy.
Abnormal periods and issues getting pregnant are common when the body does not produce enough progesterone.
Progesterone plays a significant role in the reproductive cycle by helping to prepare an ideal environment for both egg and fetus.
When progesterone levels are too low, it can cause problems at this stage.
*And finally, because progesterone and estrogen work together in tandem in the female body, low progesterone levels can cause estrogen levels to rise.
Symptoms like weight gain and diminished sex-drive are common in women whose estrogen is too high due to hormonal imbalance.
What causes low progesterone in women?
Low progesterone levels in women can be caused by the following factors:
Miscarriage is associated with low progesterone levels in women, but the exact relationship is not certain. One school of thought asserts that low progesterone can cause miscarriage because the uterus won’t be ready to support a growing fetus. On the other side of the coin, a lot of doctors see low progesterone as an indicator that a miscarriage is impending due to some other cause.
Progesterone levels and ectopic pregnancy are inextricably linked.
As we mentioned earlier, perimenopause and menopause cause a significant drop in progesterone levels that are responsible for a lot of those uncomfortable symptoms like hot flashes.
Amenorrhea (aka stress which causes a lack of ovulation/menstruation)
Hypothyroidism can cause low levels of progesterone in the body through raising levels of prolactin, another hormone, or by interfering with proper functioning of the ovaries.
Obese women are more likely to have low progesterone, as indicated in this study.
Low body fat
On the flip side, women who do not have enough body fat will not be able to menstruate at all. Ipso facto, ovulation never happens. Progesterone is never released. Problems ensue.
The female body produces progesterone during ovulation, so usually the cause of low progesterone will be related to an issue with the reproductive organs. However, along with so many health issues, problems like having too much body fat or too little can also add to the risk factor.
Bottom line- it’s always a great idea to maintain a healthy body weight, no matter what.
Signs of low progesterone levels in men
- Hair loss
- Weight gain
- Decreased sex-drive
- Erectile dysfunction
With men, we see that similarly, many of the signs of low progesterone are linked to sexual reproduction.
There are of course the added ‘unsightly’ symptoms that we associate with low-testosterone, including hair loss, fatigue, weight gain, etc.
But there are also more serious issues like depression that can flare up as a consequence of severe hormonal imbalance.
What causes low progesterone symptoms in men?
As men age, progesterone levels drop off similarly like they do in women.
The problem is that when this happens, testosterone declines while estrogen levels actually go up.
Besides ageing, an unhealthy lifestyle may cause hormonal imbalances in men.
The following factors could be contributing to low progesterone symptoms in males:
- Poor sleep health
- Not lifting heavy shit
- Poor diet
Unless there is an underlying medical issue, ultimately, maintaining a healthy weight with a nutritious, whole foods diet and getting plenty of rest on the regular are the key elements for keeping progesterone where it should be.
That goes for both the sexes.
How is low progesterone treated?
As you can see, low progesterone can cause all sorts of problems and is central to the ups and downs of estrogen. It also reduces inflammation and calms your mood by enhancing the neurotransmitter GABA.
When it comes to treating low progesterone, of course there are hormone replacement therapies that women can consider to improve their levels of progesterone.
I personally recommend high quality over the counter forms such as Pro-Adapt by Biomatrix or ProgonBL4-x by Bezwecken labs.
But even before you consider replacing hormones, you should first identify what is causing the imbalance.
Is it your diet? Is it a pregnenolone deficiency? Is it some other health condition causing inflammation?
This is why the first step should consist of an anti-inflammatory diet. By reducing foods such as sugar, wheat and diary, you can support progesterone in two ways:
- Less inflammation leads to better ovluation (and more progesterone production)
- Less inflammation enhances the sensitivity of both progesterone and GABA receptors.
Another fundamental factor is alcohol consumption. Alcohol interferes with allopregnanolone and interferes with progesterone metabolism in the body.
Additional factors include stress reduction, exercise and micronutrient deficiencies.
Next Steps You Can Take
If you think you may be suffering from low levels of progesterone, it’s important to talk to a qualified healthcare practitioner to address the issue. Whether you are trying to get pregnant or trying to keep your testosterone levels high, let the doc know all your symptoms.
Even the sexual ones that may be uncomfortable. Don’t be shy…it’s your health on the line!
Want to speak to a functional medicine professional about a possible hormonal imbalance? Other ways we can improve your health with functional medicine?
Book a free 15-minute consultation with Dr. Daniel!