By Shirelle Edghill,
Creighton Model FertilityCare Practitioner
Consider this combination of seemingly unrelated symptoms: headaches, depression, anxiety, fatigue, irritability, and miscarriage. What do these have in common? All of these symptoms can be signs that your body is deficient in the hormone progesterone.
First, a little review of how the fertility cycle works. In my last post I discussed the fact that your cycle is not your period. Your cycle is that time from the beginning of your period to the beginning of your next period. Your cycle has two parts: the pre-ovulatory phase and the post-ovulatory phase. The pre-ovulatory phase is the time from the beginning of your period up to the day that you ovulate and the post-ovulatory phase is from the day after you ovulate, up to the start of your next menstrual period. In the pre-ovulatory phase of the cycle, the hormone progesterone is naturally very low, which you can see if you look at the red line on the graphic. Notice how low it is before ovulation (the line in the middle). If we measure it in your blood, the reference value in a healthy woman would be less than 1 before you ovulate. Progesterone is created in your ovary after ovulation. The same tissue that the egg was developing in, now takes on a different function. The tissue is now called the corpus luteum. This corpus luteum is what causes the progesterone hormone levels to rise to higher and higher levels in the post-ovulatory phase.
So what happens if you don’t have enough progesterone? Well, you may have some of the PMS symptoms listed above. Yep. PMS. That often joked about 'women's problem.' You can also experience bloating, weight gain, crying, and insomnia, to name a few other symptoms. As a side note: low estrogen hormone occurring with the low progesterone in the post ovulatory phase may also contribute to PMS symptoms. One misconception is that these symptoms happen while you are actually ON your period. But true PMS caused by low progesterone will typically occur before your period begins. Some women begin to experience symptoms as many as 2 weeks before their period. And for some women, these symptoms are severe enough to really impact their quality of life. That ‘woman problem’ that is the object of many a joke is a real disorder, caused by a real hormone problem, and the consequences of this may be as serious as debilitating migraine headaches and multiple pregnancy losses. It gets a lot less funny when we think about it that way. I have a theory that there are probably a number of women being treated with anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications who may actually have a hormone problem that isn't being addressed.
When it comes to the early stages of pregnancy, the hormone progesterone is vital. The progesterone hormone causes the lining of the uterus to become rich with blood and nutrients that will sustain the life of the new little tiny baby. It is the progesterone produced by the corpus luteum that essentially “feeds” the baby for much of the first trimester. NaPro TECHNOLOGY doctors have used progesterone to effectively treat women who are at risk for miscarriage for decades now. It is only this year that more mainstream medicine has begun to realize this benefit.
So what should you do if you think your progesterone levels are too low?
#1. Chart your cycle! Find a Creighton Model practitioner and learn how to understand when you’re ovulating. You can count the number of days from the day after your estimated ovulation day up to the beginning of your next period, and that can be a good indicator of healthy progesterone levels. As a Creighton practitioner, I teach all women how to calculate their post-peak phase every single cycle, because this is an important indicator of health! Short post-ovulatory phases are a hallmark of low progesterone. You should have a minimum of 9 days from your estimated ovulation day to the start of your next period. Less than that indicates you may have low progesterone and you may be at risk for miscarriage if you did conceive. It may also explain certain symptoms that you have.
#2. Don’t self medicate with creams, herbs, etc. First of all, usually these creams have tiny amounts of progesterone that probably are not enough to help you if your levels are truly low, so you may just be wasting your money. Secondly, check out that graph up there. Your progesterone levels before ovulation SHOULD be low. The only time you would want to supplement progesterone is AFTER ovulation. Be ware of any doctors, naturopaths, etc. who would have you take progesterone all the time. This just doesn’t make sense at all, and actually might be harmful, potentially delaying ovulation if taken at the wrong time.
#3. After you’ve learned to chart your cycle, your practitioner can help connect you with a NaPro doctor that will use YOUR chart to check your levels at the correct time in your cycle. If you’ve ever had your progesterone levels checked and been told that “they were fine,” I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The reference ranges that mainstream doctors use to determine this are huge. They include both the pre-ovulatory and post-ovulatory levels and they do not take in to account where you are in your cycle. The other thing I’ve seen is women who’s doctors check their progesterone levels on a standard ‘day 14’ and when they come back at less than 1, they are told, “Oh, you aren’t ovulating.” We know there is a range of normal when it comes to when a woman ovulates, and it is entirely possibly that she just hasn’t ovulated YET in that particular cycle. Timing is everything when it comes to checking cycle related hormones. If you struggle with PMS symptoms or have had pregnancy losses, supplementing with the correct type of progesterone at the correct time in your cycle could be really beneficial to you.
I hope you found this information helpful! I’d love to hear from you in the comments if you have experienced PMS symptoms or miscarriage. I can also be reached at ShirelleEdghill@gmail.com . Thanks for reading!