Progesterone & the Anxiety Connection

If you followed along last week, you may remember us chatting all things Progesterone! We covered what exactly progesterone is, the role it serves, the estrogen : progesterone ratio, symptoms of deficiency, and what you can start doing to support this vital hormone. 

If you haven’t taken a look yet, I’d encourage you to check it out before diving into part 2 – this will help you have a solid foundation for the deeper science we’re about to unpack 🙂

Okay, let’s get into the interesting stuff…

How are Progesterone and Anxiety Connected? 

You might be wondering, how do sex hormones like estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone impact our anxiety levels? Well, they actually go hand in hand.

Interestingly, these hormones are considered ‘neuroprotective’ which essentially means they fight against potential damages caused by neurological diseases (1). 

While all of these hormones have a role in anxiety, progesterone is particularly fascinating as it binds to specific receptors in our brain and is simultaneously produced by those tiny brain cells! (1) This gives progesterone a direct path to alter both our mood and our thoughts. 

The connection goes even further…

Progesterone is not only produced by these cells, it also helps fuel the mitochondria within them.

In fact, the relationship between progesterone and our brain cells is similar to how food is to our bodies. Just as our bodies need food to perform daily tasks and activities, those small, yet mighty cells, use progesterone to do the same within the brain. 

Lastly, progesterone has also been shown to activate GABA receptors in our brain, which tell our excitatory neurotransmitters (the ones that can create stress / anxiety) to calm down (2). 

It’s important to note that GABA is an ‘inhibitory neurotransmitter‘ and so when receptors are activated (thanks to the support of progesterone) it is able to perform the important job of blocking certain nerve signals in the brain to help keep us feeling calm and anxiety at bay.

These all go to show that progesterone is crucial in telling our brain, and therefore our bodies, it’s okay to relax!

What about Progesterone and Cortisol?

In part 1, we briefly mentioned that during periods of chronic anxiety, cortisol can actually deplete progesterone. Meaning, as cortisol rises our soothing hormone fizzles out – fascinating, right!? 

Okay, bare with me for a sec as we dig a little deeper… 

For some time now, this depletion of progesterone during periods of chronic stress has been referred to as the pregnenolone steal. Because both cortisol and sex hormones are produced by pregnenolone (the foundation of many hormones) it has been believed that cortisol will “steal” pregnenolone to make even more cortisol when it’s high in demand!

However, Dr. Brighten explains to us that cortisol doesn’t actually steal anything (other than maybe a little relaxation in our lives). 

Instead, a series of hormonal interactions cause our body to favour cortisol production while reducing our sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone (2). 

Why might this happen? Well when we’re stressed, reproducing becomes less important – our priority is to get out of a stressful situation, not make a baby. 

This can cause those low progesterone symptoms like anxiety, sleep troubles, low libido and irregular, or missed periods. 

So picture this scenario:

We regularly wake up feeling anxious to start the day which has overtime caused chronically elevated cortisol. Then…

  1. These heightened levels of stress, require our bodies to reduce the amount of progesterone being produced as it’s too much to ask of the body at once. 
  1. Because there is not enough progesterone to go around, our brain cells don’t receive their ideal amount of progesterone to support its function. 
  1. At the same time, GABA receptors wait around to receive a signal from progesterone but never get it… This then causes our other stress hormones (like norepinephrine / epinephrine) to run loose.
  1. As a result, we stay in this cyclical state of anxiety.

If progesterone is balanced and in adequate supply, our bodies will have an easier time relaxing – it’s known as the soothing hormone for a reason! 

Ways to Further Balance Progesterone:

Okay, now that we’ve connected the dots between progesterone and anxiety, it’s important we have as many tools as we can to support this hormone! 

We talked about a few in the first blog, but I wanted to break it down further into my top 6 lifestyle shifts to support healthy progesterone levels. These are overarching categories that each consist of tactical tools.

  1. Consume mostly anti-inflammatory foods: This limits further stress on the body and supports optimal body functioning!

    • Healthy fats – avocado, nuts, seeds, wild fish, eggs, high quality animal products
    • Antioxidants – berries, dark chocolate, bright coloured produce (ex. beets, tomatoes, purple cabbage)

    • High quality protein – pasture raised meats, wild meats, eggs, wild fish, tempeh, beans/ legumes

    • Lots of fresh leafy greens – kale, romaine, spinach, arugula, chard, etc.
  1. Sleep sleep sleep: Getting enough sleep is so important! This will help to reduce cortisol levels which will tell the body it doesn’t need to make as much, giving us the energy to produce other hormones like progesterone. 

    • Set up an evening routine that works for you!

    • I recommend getting off devices / screens at least an hour before bed (and when this isn’t possible use blue light blocking glasses or f.lux)

    • Pick a few practices that are calming to you such as – sipping on tea (chamomile is my fave), reading, stretching, journaling, etc.
  1. Support specific nutrients: To not overwhelm yourself, pick 2-3 nutrients and go from there. Some foods fall into multiple categories too! (3)

    • B6 – sweet potato, sunflower seeds, wild fish, bananas, high quality meat

    • Zinc – pumpkin seeds, nuts, high quality red meat, wild fish

    • Magnesium – spinach, organic whole grains, high quality dark chocolate

    • Vitamin C – massaged kale, red / yellow peppers, broccoli, strawberries, oranges

    • L-Arginine – pumpkin seeds, lentils, organic pasture-raised chicken, wild fish
  1. Ensure bowels are regular! We mentioned getting enough fibre in the last article as this will help to eliminate excess estrogen and improve the estrogen : progesterone ratio

    • Fibre – beans, legumes, cauliflower, apples, celery, cooled potatoes

    • Movement – daily walks, light resistance training, yoga, hiking, etc – what feels best for you!

    • If constipation is a common issue – it’s best to work with a practitioner to get to the root of this 
  1. Support the liver: The liver is largely known as our detox organ.

    • Consume liver-loving foods to help it function optimally and further aid in removing excess estrogen

    • Examples include: Dandelion greens, mustard greens, radishes, beets, cranberries, grapefruit, etc. 
  1. Utilize adaptogenic herbs:

    • Examples Include: Ashwagandha, holy basil, medicinal mushrooms (turkey tail, reishi, lion’s mane, chaga, etc.) – it’s best to a practitioner before including these
  1. Extra support:

    • Essential oils: Lavender, fennel (calming to the gut which can improve digestion / bowel movements), clary sage (contains phytoestrogens) (4)

    • Limit environmental toxicity: use non toxic cookware, invest in a water filter, avoid chemical based cleaning and beauty products 

    • Get into nature: Put your feet in the grass, garden with bare hands, breathe deep as you walk through the forest – or any other way that gets your body reconnecting with nature (it’s true essence)

Concluding Words:

So now we can see just how related progesterone and anxiety are! However, beyond this, it serves as another reminder about just how everything within our bodies and minds are oh so connected! 

Eating in a way to nourish our hormones, will undoubtedly have an incredibly positive impact on our mental health and the vice versa is true. This is why using our diet as a tool to help support our best physical AND mental health is essential! 

If you’re dealing with anxiety, especially as a female, it’s worth checking in on your progesterone levels. This will not only help to calm the mind and body, but will allow for more comfortable / regular cycles, aid in sleep, improve cognitive function, and more. 

Click here to learn how I might be able to support you in doing so through one-on-one nutrition coaching. 

Sending a huge thanks to McKenna Garrison for her work on this blog post!

NOTE: This post should not be taken as medical advice. Consult a health care practitioner before making changes. 


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