Women are twice as likely to experience anxiety and depression than men. It’s not news that women’s constant flux of hormones significantly impacts mood—but do we look to hormone levels enough to help us better understand and nourish our mental health?
In this article, we’re talking all about progesterone, the sexual hormone best known for regulating ovulation and preparing the body for pregnancy. Beyond reproduction, you’ll learn how progesterone levels can make or break feelings of happiness, connectivity, and motivation. If you want to understand how this important hormone affect your emotional health and well-being throughout your life, keep reading.
What is Progesterone & Why It’s Important
Progesterone is the hormone produced by the ovaries, and it affects every stage of a woman’s fertility cycle—from conception to delivery. During the second half of your menstrual cycle, during the luteal phase, progesterone levels rise, thickening the uterine lining to foster a conducive environment for fertilization. Progesterone is essential for becoming pregnant and staying pregnant. If pregnancy doesn’t occur, progesterone levels drop, and your period arrives.
Understanding how progesterone works in our bodies is essential for understanding how it affects mental health.
Progesterone is known to have a calming effect on the brain, insinuating that a deficiency could lead to varying anxiety, anger, and rage levels. For example, a study showed that increased progesterone levels during the luteal phase are normally accompanied by lower levels of aggression, irritability, and fatigue. This makes sense because the largest concentration of progesterone receptors is located in the limbic brain, the center of emotions!
When progesterone levels are high during your luteal phase, you’re more likely to let things go easily, have more energy, and crave sex. This is because progesterone can increase your energy levels via thyroid and metabolism stimulation. During ovulation, we’re also more naturally inclined to have a higher sex drive.
As progesterone levels change and drop during your cycle, decreased libido is common. Beyond low libido, you’re also more likely to feel anxious, irritable, and experience mood swings. Say hello to PMS. While PMS is common among most women, PMS symptoms vary from person to person. While some women may experience higher emotional sensitivity, others may struggle with depression, intense mood swings, anger, and sometimes debilitating anxiety.
Research even links women who experience severe PMS brought on by low progesterone levels at risk for developing postpartum depression (PPD) post-pregnancy. Women who experience PPD (research shows 1 in 5 pregnant women) often experience symptoms such as irritability, fatigue, loss of appetite, and sometimes suicidal thoughts.
Menopause is also a time when progesterone levels drop. Studies show that this drop contributes to the risk of depression that many perimenopausal and menopausal women experience.
Additionally, women who have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) have lower progesterone levels due to having higher levels of male hormones. Research also links PCOS to depression and anxiety.
Supporting or Increasing Healthy Progesterone Levels
Hormone Replacement Therapy
Often, progestin, a synthetic form of progesterone, is administered to perimenopausal/menopausal women or women with PCOS or during perimenopause or menopause to help with symptoms of anxiety, depression, mood swings, anger, and more.
Many doctors agree that administering progesterone can be an effective treatment for women—and that the bioidentical kind rather than progestin, the synthetic version, may be best. This is because bioidentical progesterone is hydrophobic, meaning that it repels water or acts as a diuretic. Contrarily, non-bioidentical progestins are hydrophilic, meaning that they bond easily with water. For example, Depo Provera, a progestin, retains water, which can have unwanted side effects on your brain chemistry and even negatively affect mental health.
One study done by the Mayo Clinic supports that women found more effective anxiety, irritability, and depression relief with bioidentical progesterone than with a non-bioidentical progestin.
Beyond hormonal replacement therapy, there are other ways you can support adequate progesterone levels to support a healthy mood.
Consuming a diet high in nutrients and omega 3 fatty acids improve the body’s ability to produce progesterone naturally. Increase your intake of these foods:
- Cold water fish
- Brussels sprouts
- Spinach and other leafy greens
Consuming foods that can help reduce excess estrogen can also help bring progesterone into balance. Foods rich in vitamins B and C are a fabulous way to support healthy progesterone levels. Opt for cabbage, shellfish, nuts, berries, and bananas.
Another way to decrease excess estrogen is to eliminate conventional cosmetics and cleaning supplies, which are overflowing with endocrine-disrupting chemicals that mimic estrogen. This also means foods sprayed with pesticides and herbicides are a no-go. Opt for organic whenever possible, and always give your produce a good wash before consuming.
To learn more about eliminating excess estrogen in the body, check out our article here.
Now that you understand how progesterone levels impact your mood, what steps will you take to support healthy progesterone levels? Let me know in the comments below.
- Melissa, B., Sarah, L.M., Teri, P., Scott, S., Caron, Z. & Michael, W.O. (2013), Archives of Women’s Mental Health, Examination of Premenstrual Symptoms as a Risk Factor for Depression in Postpartum Women”, Article consulted on March 18, 2020
- Centers for Diseases Control & Prevention, PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) and Diabetes, Article consulted on March 18, 2020
- Gavin, N.I., Gaynes, B.N., Lohr, K.N., Meltzer-Brody, S., Gartiehner, G. & Swinson, T. (2005), Obstetrics and Gynecology, Perinatal Depression: A Systematic Review of Prevalence and Incidence”, Article consulted on March 18, 2020
- Joyce, T.B. & Howard, M.K. (2011), Obstetrics and Gynecology Clinics of North America, Mood and Menopause: Findings from the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN) Over Ten Years”, Article consulted on March 18, 2020,