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Progesterone: The Missing Link Between You & Pregnancy

It’s common to think that once you’re ready to conceive, all you need to do is figure out when you ovulate, have unprotected sex and boom, you’ll get pregnant. But many couples realize it’s not quite that easy! Although there are myriad reasons couples can have obstacles conceiving, low progesterone is an all too familiar culprit. 

The good news is that simple tweaks with herbs, diet, and lifestyle can make a huge improvement in progesterone levels in as little as 3–4 months. How does taking relaxing epsom salt baths and eating buttery eggs with avocado sound for a “prescription” to increasing your fertility? Sound too good to be true? It’s not. 

First, let’s take a minute to review the sex hormone progesterone. 

Healthy Progesterone Levels 

Progesterone, commonly referred to as the “the pregnancy hormone,” causes the uterine lining to thicken during the menstrual cycle in case it needs to house a fertilized egg. It also maintains early pregnancy. 

When not pregnant, progesterone helps to reduce premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms, calms the mood, and supports a healthy ovulatory cycle. 

Energetically, progesterone is responsible for an increase in the need for rest, heightened emotional sensitivity, a shift toward more inward, intuitive abilities, creative insights, and the desire to tidy up, creating space and order in our nests. 

Low Progesterone Levels 

Low progesterone levels cause a short luteal phase, which is the two-ish weeks after ovulation and before menstruation. So even if an egg becomes fertilized, without sufficient progesterone levels, it won’t have a long enough time to burrow into the uterine wall and prevent menstruation from occurring again. A healthy luteal phase is around 12-16 days long, whereas a short luteal phase is around 10 days or less. 

In short, low progesterone is routinely responsible for early and/or repeat miscarriages. 

Signs that Indicate Low Progesterone 

Severe PMS, premenstrual spotting (you begin spotting the days leading up to your actual bleeding days), short luteal phases, and repeat miscarriages can all indicate low progesterone levels. 

Here are two ways you can check your luteal phase length as a way to gauge your progesterone levels:

  • Take your basal body temperature (BBT) every morning. Preovulatory temps are lower due to estrogen while postovulatory temps are higher due to progesterone, a heat inducing hormone. Once there is a temp shift and you confirm ovulation has occurred (see the two books below for complete BBT info), the count is on! Your luteal phase begins with ovulation through to the last day before bleeding begins. Keep track of your BBT on a period app or use a paper charting resource, like this Menstrual Calendar Journal.

(If learning how to chart and understand your fertility signs piques your curiosity, Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler or The Fifth Vital Sign by Lisa Hendrickson-Jack are page-turners and must-reads to educate yourself!) 

  • Alternatively, you can check your progesterone levels with a mid-luteal phase blood check. 

If you discover you’re progesterone deficient, consider trying the following three tips! 

Tips to Improve Progesterone Levels 

The tips below are easy, every day tactics you can implement to try to increase your progesterone levels and thus, to improve your fertility.

1.) Herbal Hormonal Balancer, Vitex (Vitex agnus-castus

vitex hormone balancer

The herbal supplement Vitex, also called Chaste tree, is a hormonal normalizer and uterine tonic. It’s recommended to take Vitex for at least three months every morning to normalize female sex hormones, especially progesterone levels. You can find Vitex at most health food stores or apothecaries. 

Check in with your healthcare provider before starting an herbal regiment, but keep in mind that it’s herbalists and naturopathic doctors who have knowledge of herbal supplements and their benefits. 

2.) Increase Cholesterol and Fat (yes, they’re both essential for fertility and healthy hormones!) 

Cholesterol and progesterone have a strong relationship. You need cholesterol in order to make progesterone, and all sex hormones for that matter. Cholesterol is a precursor to sex hormone production. (full fat chicken and vegetable soup image below)

full fat chicken and mushroom soup

If your diet is low in healthy fats (saturated and unsaturated) or cholesterol, your body will not make enough progesterone. Vitamins A, D, and K are fat soluble vitamins, which are essential for fertility and readily available in animal fats. Eating seafood, butter or ghee, eggs, and sacred fertility foods such as liver or fish oil (special shout out to cod liver oil!) will increase healthy cholosterol and fat levels and increase sex hormone production. If an omnivorous diet resonates with you, check out Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon or the work of Lily Nichols, RDN.

If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, I recommend following the diets of nutritionist Kimberly Snyder of Solluna or Jenné Claiborne of Sweet Potato Soul. 

Diet is a sensitive subject and every body is different! Vegetarianism and veganism can work beautifully for some women, and not for others. 

3.) Minimize Stress with Lifestyle and Herbal Adaptogens 

adaptogen herbs to reduce stress

Sex hormones are one of the first things to falter when you’re stressed out. Here’s why: 

Cholesterol makes both sex and stress hormones. If you experience a stressful few months, AND are deficient in healthy amounts of cholesterol, the cholesterol you’re getting from food is turned into cortisol, “the stress hormone,” as a priority. This potentially leads to insufficient amounts of cholesterol needed for healthy progesterone production. 

Cortisol and progesterone have an inverse relationship—the more cortisol you excrete due to stress, the less progesterone your body is able to produce. 

Daily walks in nature, baths or foot baths, dancing, smelling lavender essential oil, prayer, journaling, etc., are all things you can do to reduce stress. 

Fortunately, adaptogens, which are a category of herbs, help people adapt to and fortify their body against environmental, physical, emotional, and biological stressors. “Adaptogens do not block the stress response, but instead smooth out the associated highs and lows” summarizes David Winston in his book, Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief. 

Do your own research (I highly recommend the book mentioned above), or work with an herbalist or naturopathic doctor to find which adaptogenic herb(s) is best for you. 

The Key Takeaways 

Getting enough healthy fat and cholesterol and minimizing stress are two vital lifestyle hacks to naturally produce more progesterone. 

Herbs such as the hormonal normalizer Vitex and adaptogenic herbs can naturally help balance hormone production and fortify all functions of the body. 

Understanding and keeping track of your body’s fertility signs are wonderful ways to gauge your overall health.

Questions? Just ask!

XOXO, Veronica Ricksen, Clinical Herbalist

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References:

Waller, Pip. Holistic Anatomy: an Integrative Guide to the Human Body. North Atlantic Books, 2010.

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