Initiated at puberty, the ovarian cycle is governed by two key hormones: estrogen and progesterone.
During the first half of the cycle, it is estrogen which takes center stage: produced by maturing follicles in the ovaries, estrogen is responsible for thickening the lining of the womb (endometrium) in preparation for a potential pregnancy.
Halfway through, just after ovulation, things change: the freshly-ruptured follicle gives way to the corpus luteum, which stimulates production of progesterone. This steroid hormone maintains the thickened uterine lining and makes the environment more conducive to implantation.
If fertilisation takes place, estrogen and progesterone continue to be secreted in order to support the pregnancy. If there is no fertilisation, the corpus luteum withers and dies and there is a fall in levels of first progesterone, and then estrogen. This results in a shedding of the uterine lining – in other words, a period, and so the next cycle begins.
Cycles follow one another in this way as long as there is a sufficient reserve of follicles. Between the ages of 45 and 55, however, these finite reserves become exhausted. Levels of estrogen and progesterone gradually decline, and there is a definitive end to the menstrual cycle: after 12 months without a period, a woman is said to be in the menopause.
This major transition can unfold without any problems. However, the significant change in hormone levels proves disruptive to daily life for many women who experience what are termed ‘climacteric’ symptoms: hot flashes, night sweats, headaches, sleep problems, irritability… For some, these problems begin many years before the menopause, and mark their entry into the peri-menopause.
Though often short-lived, this considerable discomfort can also last for some time after periods have stopped. The good news is there are various ways of restoring adequate progesterone levels to successfully transition through this dreaded stage of a woman’s life.
A good place to start is diet. During the menopause, it’s wise to prioritise certain foods for their significant progesterone content. Top of this list are egg yolks, dairy products (especially from cow’s milk) and poultry (1-2).
Conversely, you should limit your intake of foods that mimic the effects of estrogen in the body in order to maintain progesterone status. Among dietary sources of phytoestrogens which should be restricted are, in particular, soya, linseed, fennel and oats. (3). Similarly, if you’re a fan of herbal teas, you should avoid certain types such as sage and hop.
As for the rest of your diet, stick to the usual nutritional guidelines : fresh fruits and vegetables to stock up on vitamins and minerals, and healthy fats (mono and polyunsaturated rather than saturated).
If you feel bloated, it could be because the fall in hormone levels affects the body’s metabolism of lipids ... and its propensity to store fats. It’s therefore not uncommon for women to gain weight when they reach the menopause (4). Interestingly, some animal studies suggest that shedding a few excess pounds could significantly raise levels of progesterone in the blood (5).
But if you’re tempted to start a crash diet, think again. Losing weight too quickly puts you at risk of creating a second hormonal storm. Instead, take a gradual approach, modifying your lifestyle slowly but surely. The key is to combine regular exercise with a slight reduction in your daily calorie intake.
Some menopausal or peri-menopausal women also choose to supplement with progesterone
If you’d rather avoid synthetic formulations, choose a natural, plant-based progesterone such as that obtained from yams, which is bio-identical in structure to the female hormones (7). This is available either as a classic cream (such as Natural Progesterone Cream, with a liposomal formulation for optimal penetration) or as a handy spray (such as Natural Progesterone Spray, enriched with vitamin E for maximum uptake).
Loss of femininity, feelings of emptiness, existential crisis: the menopause can place huge strain on your psychogical and emotional well-being. Unfortunately, cortisol (the famous ‘stress hormone’) and progesterone share the same precursor: pregnenolone.
As a result, in the case of prolonged exposure to stress, the body prioritises cortisol production to ensure your ‘survival’, pushing progesterone to the back burner (6).
So to raise your progesterone, try to lower your stress levels as much as possible through gentle approaches such as yoga, meditation and sophrology.
And once again, nature is there to help! More commonly-known as Indian ginseng, ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a classic Ayurvedic adaptogen plant which promotes optimal relaxation, mental well-being and stress reduction (7-8). It can be found in certain cutting-edge supplements (such as Super Ashwagandha, standardized to 5% withanolides for optimal efficacy).
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