Progesterone is a female sex hormone that, like estrogen, is produced mainly by the ovaries. Progesterone’s primary job is to prepare the uterus for pregnancy by thickening the lining of the uterus. If an egg is implanted during a woman’s fertilization period, progesterone maintains the uterine lining. If no egg is implanted, it sheds the lining, triggering menstruation. Not only is progesterone crucial to the menstrual cycle, but it also plays a role in bone formation, affects mood, and prevents sleep disturbances. Progesterone, as the hormone responsible for the timing of menstruation, is closely linked to menopause.
The levels of progesterone in the body are constantly fluctuating. Each month, the amount of progesterone rises until shortly before the onset of menstruation, dropping sharply if no fertilized egg is implanted in the uterus. During perimenopause, progesterone and estrogen levels begin to drop as the body prepares itself to cease menstruating.
Menopause is considered official once a woman has gone 12 months since her last period. Perimenopause, the period in which your body is making a natural transition to menopause, can begin almost a decade before the onset of menopause. Progesterone levels dip dramatically during perimenopause and menopause. Symptoms that indicate a drop in progesterone can include:
While both hormones dip during this time, they don’t always drop evenly, and progesterone may fall more rapidly than estrogen. When this happens, it can result in a condition known as estrogen dominance. Estrogen dominance leads to a host of symptoms, including exceptionally heavy or painful periods, heightened PMS symptoms, fibrocystic breasts, decreased sex drive, sleepiness or sleep disturbances, and weight gain.
Hormone fluctuations due to natural menopause are not the only causes of estrogen dominance, so it’s a good idea to contact your healthcare provider if these symptoms crop up. Estrogen dominance or low progesterone levels are typically detected with a simple blood test. Other situations that can cause estrogen dominance include:
Imbalances, whether short or long-term, can often be mitigated with medications like hormone replacement therapy. Your healthcare provider will not only help ensure that any other conditions are caught early but may also be able to provide supplemental medications to reduce the more troublesome symptoms.
Most of us can’t control the exact balance of hormones in our systems, but there are a few ways in which we can influence them. Individuals with a high ratio of body fat might find some relief by losing fat. This is because fat, especially the fat that collects around the stomach, hips, and thighs, stimulates estrogen production.
Strength exercises designed to increase muscle mass will help boost metabolism, as muscle requires more calories to maintain than fat. Because lean muscle is denser than fat, strength training may initially increase weight even as it reduces fat. Continued strength training will usually reverse this trend.
Stress, especially chronic stress, can lead to estrogen dominance by impeding the production of progesterone. Chronic stress triggers the adrenal glands to increase the concentrations of another hormone, cortisol. Both cortisol and progesterone are produced using cholesterol. When stressed, the body uses up a large amount of cholesterol in the production of cortisol, leaving very little left over to convert into other hormones like progesterone.
Meditation and mindfulness practices are often helpful in balancing hormones due to stress levels. These practices are designed to reduce stress, and reducing stress reduces the production of cortisol as well. Exercise methods such as yoga, tai chi, and qigong do double duty as they both reduce overall stress levels and increase lean muscle mass.
There are several vitamins and minerals that can either reduce estrogen or increase progesterone production in the body. Eating these foods may help to balance hormones naturally, although before making any significant dietary changes, you should have a discussion with a medical professional familiar with your history.
Foods that increase progesterone are typically high in specific vitamins and minerals. Vitamins B6, C, and E, as well as magnesium and zinc, are especially important to the production of this hormone.
In some cases, your doctor may recommend hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to ease your symptoms. HRT can either introduce just additional estrogen into the system, or it can include both estrogen and progesterone. Adding progesterone to your HRT regimen can help improve sleep quality, reduce hot flashes, and may even make it easier to lose weight.
While replacing deficient natural hormones with synthetic ones may reduce many menopausal symptoms related to hormonal imbalances, it also carries additional risks. Women on HRT are more likely to develop heart disease, cancer, blood clots, and stroke. These supplements may also trigger higher rates of false positives on medical tests like mammograms. Women who took only estrogen appear to reduce the additional risk of heart disease and breast cancer compared to those who used both supplements.
Weight gain during menopause has a variety of sources. Although we have some control over conditions such as our diet, exercise regimen, and how we handle stress, other factors may not be as governable. Factors like tumor development, adrenal damage, or family history are typically out of our control and may be hidden. Consulting a health professional will provide you with the information you need to take control of your hormonal health and help counteract unexpected complications.