Progesterone is one of the most important reproductive hormones. In fact, the word “progesterone” literally means “pro-gestation.” Despite this, many women have low progesterone levels in conjunction with an irregular period and/or conditions like PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome), making it more difficult to conceive.
Are you concerned about whether you have low progesterone levels? In this post, you will learn what progesterone is and why it is important to your menstrual cycle and fertility. We will also cover signs and symptoms you may have if your progesterone is low as well as foods that increase progesterone.
What is Progesterone?
Progesterone is a female reproductive hormone that stimulates and helps to regulate functions during pregnancy as well as the menstrual cycle. Progesterone is produced in the adrenal gland, and the ovaries, and is also found in the corpus luteum, a temporary ovarian gland that forms during ovulation.
What Role Does Progesterone Play in the Menstrual Cycle?
During menstruation, your reproductive system prepares itself for the potential implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus. After ovulation, which occurs about halfway into your cycle, progesterone levels start to rise. This signals a thickening of the endometrial lining of the uterus in preparation for implantation. If implantation does not occur progesterone will drop, which initiates the shedding of the endometrial lining (i.e. your period)
The Luteal Phase
The luteal phase occurs during the second half of the menstrual cycle, starting right after ovulation. During this phase, the egg that was released from one of your ovaries during ovulation travels down the fallopian tube. Progesterone peaks during the luteal phase, as it prepares the lining of the uterus for the implantation of a fertilized egg.
Typically, the luteal phase lasts 14 days, though for some women it can last anywhere from 11 to 17 days. A luteal phase of fewer than 11 days is considered short and indicates poor conditions for embryo growth and development.
Why is Progesterone Important for Fertility?
If a fertilized egg does implant in the uterus during the luteal phase, progesterone levels remain elevated. This prevents the lining of the uterus from shedding and your period from occurring.
Since the rise of progesterone after ovulation is what initiates the luteal phase, having low progesterone levels may be the cause of a short luteal phase. During such a short period of time, the uterine lining cannot properly develop in order to sustain an embryo. This reduces fertility and makes it harder to conceive
Progesterone plays a key role in maintaining pregnancy by reducing the ability of the uterus to contract. By inhibiting contractions progesterone helps to prevent miscarriage in early pregnancy.
Signs and Symptoms of Low Progesterone
Although progesterone levels fluctuate throughout the menstrual cycle, it is important to recognize when these fluctuations may not be functioning normally. Your progesterone typically starts to rise after ovulation, reaches a peak around halfway through the luteal phase, and comes back down right before your period starts. As mentioned above, this cycle should last at least 11 days if normal.
So how do you know if your progesterone is low? A telltale sign may be a luteal phase that is shorter than 11 days. Other common signs of low progesterone include:
- Irregular or missed periods
- Spotting between periods
- Low sex drive
- Symptoms of PMS like bloating, breast tenderness, headaches
- Difficulty conceiving
Since progesterone is key to promoting a healthy pregnancy, having low progesterone when you’re pregnant could be detrimental. Some signs of low progesterone during pregnancy may include:
- Abdominal pain
- Early labor
- Ectopic pregnancy
- Recurrent pregnancy loss
Causes of Low Progesterone
Several factors could be contributing to your low progesterone levels. Some underlying causes of low progesterone are:
- Estrogen dominance
- Chronic Stress
- Caloric restriction
- Ovulatory problems
- Thyroid Conditions
- Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)
If you identify with any of these and are experiencing symptoms of low progesterone, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor and seek diagnosis.
Nutrients and Foods That Increase Progesterone
Several essential vitamins and minerals play a key role in maintaining progesterone levels. Here’s a list of foods that increase progesterone thanks to their content of these vital nutrients.
Vitamin B6 is an essential vitamin found in several types of meat, starchy vegetables, and certain fruits. It has been shown to effectively raise progesterone levels in women. One study found that women with higher levels of vitamin B6 had a 50% lower risk of miscarriage than those deficient in the vitamin.
Foods that are high in vitamin B6 include:
Vitamin C is known for its support of the immune system, but did you know it also plays a role in the production and maintenance of hormones like progesterone? Research done on women with a luteal phase defect showed treatment with vitamin C significantly increased their progesterone levels 53% of the time.
Foods that contain vitamin C include:
- Citrus fruits
- Bell peppers
Vitamin E is not just good for our skin, it also helps stabilize progesterone levels by detoxing estrogen during the right time in your cycle. Studies have shown that vitamin E supplementation is associated with increased progesterone during the luteal phase.
Foods with high vitamin E content include:
- Sunflower seeds
Magnesium is essential to the production and balance of several female hormones, including progesterone. This mineral also plays a role in reducing the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. This helps to promote balance between other hormones like progesterone and estrogen because chronically high stress can interfere with this balance.
Good sources of magnesium include:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Leafy greens
- Dark chocolate
Zinc is a powerful antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties that also stimulates the production of progesterone by the ovaries. A study found that zinc supplementation appears to improve symptoms of PCOS.
Foods high in zinc include:
- Lean red meat
Fiber is crucial for maintaining the balance between your reproductive hormones. This special carbohydrate is indigestible by the human body and helps it to detox excess hormones by binding to them before being excreted.
Some good sources of fiber are:
- Whole grains
L-arginine is an amino acid found in most protein-rich foods. In the body, it is converted to nitric oxide, which improves the flow of blood and blood vessels. Good blood circulation is crucial for the proper function of the ovaries and corpus luteum, which releases progesterone. Research has found that taking supplements of l-arginine ovarian response and thus improve pregnancy success rate.
Foods that contain l-arginine include:
To summarize, progesterone is a hormone that regulates the menstrual cycle and plays a key role in maintaining pregnancy. Progesterone levels peak during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle, so having a short luteal phase may be a sign that your progesterone is low. (Interested in learning about regulating your luteal phase? Read our blog post on how to lengthen your luteal phase naturally). Having deficient progesterone levels may also look like certain symptoms of PMS, as well as an inability to conceive and carry out pregnancy.
Nutrition can be a great way to resolve issues that stem from having low progesterone. Foods that increase progesterone can be found among all food groups, so your options are limitless. Even if you’re not experiencing symptoms of low progesterone, incorporating foods that increase progesterone into your diet can help improve your fertility and help you conceive. As always, consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet.
Fuel Your Fertility
Are you looking for more guidance on how to optimize your nutrition for hormonal health? Check out our Guide to Fuel Your Fertility and Optimize Your Hormonal Health! We’ll dive into:
- Foods to include to fuel your fertility
- A list of what to keep in stock in your kitchen
- Supplements for conception
- Seed cycling to optimize hormonal health
- Complete with meal plans to support your hormones in the follicular and luteal phases
- Plus 20 bonus fertility fueling snack recipes to incorporate into your day!
Looking for more? Check out some of our latest fertility blog posts:
- 5 Tips on How to Lengthen Your Luteal Phase Naturally
- Seed Cycling with The Moon to Optimize Hormonal Health
- 20+ Fertility Recipes to Help You Conceive
- How to Improve Egg Quality: 5 Dietitian Approved Ways to Naturally Increase Egg Quality
- 9 Foods to Help Implantation Success & Have a Healthy Pregnancy
“27 Foods that Increase Progesterone Naturally” is written by Boriana Roumenova and reviewed/edited by Jamie Adams, MS RD LDN. Boriana is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland pursuing a degree in biology and dietetics. As an aspiring dietitian, she is interested specifically in women’s health and nutrition, as well as nutrition and exercise.”