Estrogen has a tendency to steal the show when it comes to female hormones, overshadowing its equally important counterpart, progesterone. In fact, progesterone isn’t talked about much outside of the context of maintaining a healthy pregnancy, but it does important work during all stages of life.
So, what is progesterone? It’s a hormone (no surprise there) produced in the ovaries that acts as a natural anti-inflammatory. It does this by inhibiting the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines (substances secreted by cells). It works in tandem with estrogen, though each hormone has its time to shine during your cycle.
The Secret to Skin Health: Progesterone
While progesterone most often gets props for producing the enviable pregnancy glow, it is responsible for all occurrences of dewy, luminous skin thanks to its role in oil production. Its anti-inflammatory properties also help skin repair itself and prevent wrinkles and other signs of skin aging (which are caused by the effects of stress, which in turn cause the inflammation the progesterone helps protect against).
It’s not all youthful skin and rainbows though. Like any hormone, progesterone can cause a few problems when it’s out of balance and those problems inevitably show up in your skin. If your levels are too low, you may notice your skin is dry, sensitive, or slower to heal. This is why your skin requires a little more TLC when you’re on your period, when progesterone levels are naturally at their lowest.
On the flip side, excess sebum brought on by rising progesterone levels in the second half of your cycle or during pregnancy can cause acne or other existing skin issues to flare up. Like all things hormonal, the key to glowing skin is to do your best to keep your progesterone levels happy and healthy.
The Dance Between Progesterone and Estrogen
Progesterone is important on its own, but in the larger picture of your health, its main role is being the yin to estrogen’s yang. Levels of the two hormones are intimately connected: if you suffer from excess estrogen, that probably means your progesterone is low. Without the balancing effects of progesterone, estrogen goes a bit haywire.
True to their identity as the female sex hormones, estrogen and progesterone play vital roles in all aspects of fertility. In the menstrual cycle, estrogen and progesterone naturally rise and fall as part of a healthy 28-day (or so) process. Estrogen kicks things off by beginning its rise right after your period ends; it’s followed by progesterone which reigns during the second half of your cycle, with both plummeting during the menstrual phase.
Progesterone’s timing is key to the process of getting pregnant, among other things. “Progesterone helps support implantation for pregnancy, balance mood, build strong bones, and help cognitive function,” says Dr. Amy Beckley, PhD and founder and CEO of Proov. A spike in progesterone confirms you have successfully ovulated (not ovulating is the most common cause of female infertility), while low progesterone levels may indicate that something else is at play, like PCOS, hypothyroidism, or perimenopause.
If you do get pregnant, progesterone becomes the main character. It does this first by making sure the uterine lining can accept an embryo and then its levels continue to rise steadily throughout the 40 or so weeks as it works to support a healthy pregnancy.
Progesterone is also important because it can make you feel relaxed. Whether or not it's needed to support a pregnancy, progesterone metabolizes into something called allopregnanolone, which increases GABA function. This has a feel-good, calming effect on the body and can promote sleepiness and a general sense of well-being. (Though, in women with PMS And PMDD, or premenstrual dysphoric disorder, allopregnanolone has the opposite effect and has been linked to depression and anxiety.)
Maintaining the Progesterone Balancing Act
The first step to maintaining any hormone balance is adopting the main tenets of a healthy lifestyle – improving your diet, incorporating movement into your day, and reducing stress. But there are some specific things that you can do just for your progesterone:
Eat Your B6, folate, and zinc: These three nutrients are particularly good at boosting progesterone levels. While there is some overlap, each has its own places to shine. For B6, try tuna, salmon, chickpeas, chicken, certain fruits (like bananas, oranges, and papaya), as well as dark leafy greens. Folate can also be found in leafy greens as well as beets, citrus fruits, legumes, asparagus, eggs, and nuts (particularly flax seeds and walnuts). For zinc, look to red meat or shellfish, legumes, nuts (think almonds, pine nuts, and cashews), and seeds (like pumpkin, hemp, and sesame).
Skip the intermittent fasting trend: This diet may be all the rage, but emerging studies show that regularly restricting calories can negatively affect levels of progesterone in premenopausal women. While more research needs to be done on women in this age group, early indications are enough to raise concern that intermittent fasting is not friendly to fertility hormones, including progesterone.
Add magnesium to your regimen: Supplementing with magnesium has also been shown to help regulate ovulation and produce progesterone. The easiest way to get more magnesium is through your diet (leafy greens, fatty fish like salmon and halibut, dark chocolate, and nuts like brazil nuts, almonds, and cashews) or taking a supplement. But another way you can add magnesium to your routine is regularly bathing in Epsom salts.
Look to progesterone pills to help you find balance: If progesterone is at the root of your PMS issues, think about giving your body’s natural production a little support with a supplement like Veracity’s Cycle Harmony, which helps to regulate your monthly cycle. If the problem stems from excess estrogen, a supplement like Veracity’s Dim Detox can help your body detox estrogen to bring the ratio of the two fertility hormones back to a happier state.
Find your zen, in whatever way works for you: You don’t have to meditate or do yoga. But if you can find something that helps you control your stress, be that a simple breathing exercise, puzzling, or just taking short walks in the sun (vitamin D!) and nature, your progesterone will thank you. Cortisol not only gobbles up the building blocks of progesterone, but it also blocks the progesterone receptors in the body. This means when you’re stressed, your body is physically incapable of producing an optimal amount of progesterone.
Consider your birth control options: The pill has increasingly been shown to have some negative side effects, including causing digestive issues and lowering levels of progesterone. If you’ve been on the pill for a while and are having problems with this hormone, talk to your doctor about switching to another form of birth control.
Take stock of your wine nights: You know that delicate balance between estrogen and progesterone we talked about? Unfortunately, research has shown alcohol is particularly disruptive to this relationship, increasing the ratio of estrogen to progesterone. You don’t need to give up all happy hours, especially if that’s one of your methods of de-stressing (no judgment here!), but if your hormones are out of balance, think about cutting back a bit to give your progesterone a boost.
Every hormone has a part to play in all stages of your health – and progesterone is no different. Even if pregnancy is not on your radar, consider taking regular looks at this hormone to make sure it is happy, balanced, and working to keep your skin and health at their very best.