35 or over? Why you need to optimise progesterone now more than ever..
In this blog I’m going to explain what the hormone progesterone actually is, how your body makes it, why you start to make less of it after age 35, what this means for you and what you can do about it!
After around age 35 your body starts to make less and less progesterone the further you move into your 40s. Why does this matter? Let’s take a look now.
Healthy hormone balance means having oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone levels in healthy ranges and therefore in balance with one another. When one or more of these hormones is higher or lower than the ideal level it creates an overall hormone IMBALANCE.
A hormone imbalance where progesterone levels are low create symptoms such as breast pain, heavy periods, painful periods, water retention (‘puffiness’), sleep issues, changes in mood such as anxiety or irritability, migraines or headaches and weight gain (particularly around the middle).
Does any of that sound familiar to you?
These are typical symptoms a lot of women experience during perimenopause, which occurs in the 2-12 years leading up to menopause (a full 12 months with no menstrual cycle). During this perimenopause phase the communication between your brain and ovaries starts to change resulting in oestrogen going on a roller coaster ride whilst progesterone gradually starts to decline.
THE GOOD NEWS IS that some simple diet and lifestyle habits can make a HUGE difference to these symptoms. Once you reach your late 30s it’s really important to understand and embrace the fact that your body (and hormones) needs a different approach now.
What your body could handle in your 20s and earlier 30s diet and lifestyle wise (e.g., sleep, exercise, alcohol, ‘busyness’ etc.) isn’t the same in your late 30s and 40s, because after 35 your hormones become more sensitive to your diet and lifestyle habits - particularly around sleep, stress, exercise and alcohol.
This is NOT the time for low calorie diets and restriction, doing cardio like the clappers, late nights and lots of booze!
WHY IS PROGESTERONE SO IMPORTANT?
Progesterone really is a wonderful hormone for us women and here are some reasons why:
It shelters your body from the effects of too much or ‘dominating’ oestrogen. Oestrogen is also a wonderful hormone but if left unchecked by its calming best friend progesterone it can run riot and cause the typical hormone imbalance symptoms mentioned above such as breast pain, heavy periods, water retention (‘puffiness’), sleep issues, mood issues and weight gain, as well as drive oestrogen-driven conditions like fibroids and endometriosis.
Progesterone is your anti-anxiety, anti-irritability, calming hormone and vital for your overall sense of wellbeing including good sleep and increasing your capacity to deal with stress.
It lightens your period therefore helping to prevent heavy painful periods
It’s anti-inflammatory which is good news for prevention of the many health conditions and diseases driven by inflammation.
It’s a natural diuretic so it prevents water-retention and ‘puffiness’ around the body.
It boosts your metabolism and lean muscle mass, both of which are key for keeping body fat in check.
It supports a healthy thyroid.
It can support immune health and also brain and cognitive health.
PHEW! So, you can see just how important progesterone is and why we really don’t want to lose it. You will feel the effects of low progesterone in the form of poor sleep, irritability, anxiety, heavy periods, breast pain, belly fat, and low energy.
HOW YOUR BODY MAKES PROGESTERONE & WHY YOU MAKE LESS OF IT AFTER 35
Progesterone is made during the second half of your menstrual cycle, known as the luteal phase of a natural cycle. But good levels of this hormone are ONLY made if you ovulate that month because it’s made as a result of ovulation occurring.
So, ovulation is a lot more than just about fertility, it’s an INTEGRAL part of progesterone production and simply put the less we ovulate the less progesterone we make.
Let’s now look at exactly how your body makes progesterone after ovulation.
Just after ovulation one of your ovaries releases a load of progesterone made with a unique little temporary endocrine gland called the corpus luteum, which is formed in the ovary during ovulation. The corpus luteum forms very quickly, going from nothing to a fully vascularized 4cm structure in less than 24 hours (during ovulation) and it lives for about 11-14 days (during the luteal phase) where it continues to make progesterone.
The formation of the corpus luteum demands a lot of energy and nutrients such as cholesterol, B-vitamins, coQ10, vitamin D, iodine, magnesium, selenium and zinc, which makes optimal intakes of these nutrients key for ovulation and therefore progesterone production.
NOTE: There’s no progesterone if you’re on almost any type of hormonal contraception, including the implant and hormonal IUD, because contraceptive medications suppress ovulation and the progestins contained in these meds are NOT the same as progesterone.
WHY DO YOU MAKE LESS PROGESTERONE AFTER 35?
In your late 30s and into your 40s you start to have more menstrual cycles where you DON’T ovulate, known as ‘anovulatory cycles’. This starts to happen more and more months and some women don’t ovulate at all for many months at a time, resulting in overall less and less progesterone production.
Your menstrual cycle can appear completely normal and you wouldn’t actually know that you hadn’t ovulated unless you’re actively tracking your cycles and checking your basal body temperature each morning and looking for a spike in body temperature around the time when ovulation should occur, and or using ovulation strips.
Ovulation was hard to achieve in your younger cycling years and it just becomes even harder once we approach and move into our 40s. But we CAN support our bodies to ovulate more months once we know the things that make it harder to achieve and we start to implement supportive nutrition and lifestyle habits.
FACTORS THAT PREVENT YOU FROM OVULATING
STRESS! This is probably THE BIGGEST blocker to ovulation. Your brain doesn’t know the difference between the stress of being stuck in traffic versus being chased by a tiger like our ancestors were when looking for food to eat. Today’s modern-day stressors have exactly the same impact on our body and hormones as genuine life-threatening situations do. So whether you’re stuck in traffic, overloaded at work, having issues with your boss or colleagues, emotional issues at home with a partner, parent or child, financial worries, or running late to collect the kids – your brain just perceives STRESS! This information is then fed down to your ovaries resulting in them NOT ovulating because it’s not deemed a safe time to potentially hold a pregnancy. Unfortunately, your brain doesn’t know or care that you only want to ovulate to make progesterone.
So, addressing & managing stress is probably the first place to start for many women.
Other factors that prevent ovulation include:
Nutrient deficiencies (e.g., those mentioned above)
Under-eating / low calorie diets
Only just come off of hormonal contraceptive medications (body needs 3-9 months to get back into balance)
Being on progestin-only contraceptive medications including the implant and hormonal IUD.
HOW CAN YOU SUPPORT YOUR BODY TO OVULATE (AKA MAKE PROGESTERONE)?
There are various food and lifestyle habits that can have a profound impact on your body’s ability to ovulate each month. Please understand that you can't just implement these habits for a few days each month and expect it to result in ovulation, they need to become part of your daily life for a long time and for the long term in order to help support your body to ovulate as many months as possible from now on.
Reduce and manage stress and nourish your nervous system (see tips below)
Prioritise a good night’s sleep, every night.
Be well nourished with enough calories coming from quality proteins, nutrient-dense carbohydrate, good fats (especially omega 3 as DHA & EPA and including cholesterol), iodine, zinc, B vitamins, vitamin D, magnesium, vitamin A (as retinol), selenium and zinc. Remember, perimenopause is NOT the time to restrict calories or specific foods, especially protein and fat.
Address possible underlying inflammatory issues such as a dairy or gluten sensitivity, insulin resistance, compromised gut health or ‘leaky gut’, thyroid issues.
Vitex agnus-castus (also called vitex, chaste tree, or chasteberry) is a herbal tincture that might promote ovulation in some women, but only if you’re fully nourished already and managing your stress really well, i.e. it wouldn’t be a magic bullet without having these other areas addressed beforehand.
HERE ARE MY TOP TIPS FOR MANAGING STRESS & NOURISHING YOUR NERVOUS SYSTEM:
Daily walks in nature e.g., a park or any green space you have access to and even just 20 minutes is beneficial. Try to avoid listening to anything or being on the phone and instead spend the time taking in what’s around you and listening to the sounds – known as ‘mindfulness’.
Improve and prioritise your sleep, see my 10 tips for better sleep blog here.
10-20 minutes of Qi Gong or Tai Chi. You can find lots of free videos on YouTube to follow along to and then learn off by heart to use as and when you need to calm and restore.
Gentle yoga such as a slow flow or a yin or restorative class.
Yoga Nidra body scan meditations taken lying down on your back. There are many available for free on YouTube such as iRest Yoga Nidra or on the free Insight Timer app.
Warm baths in Epsom salts with candles and relaxing music.
Reading light fiction, watching or listening to your favourite comedians, laughing with loved ones, and hugging loved ones and pets.
Creative hobbies or activities you miss and love from your childhood.
Listening to your favourite music from childhood or teenage years to make you smile :-)
I hope this blog has given you a good insight into the importance of progesterone and inspired you to better support your body to produce more of it! I’d love to hear from you if you have any questions, email me at email@example.com.
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