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The Power of Progesterone
By Kristen Rogers

A woman's body is a wonderful and complex creation. Unfortunately, several things can go wrong with it. Such disorders as PMS, breast and uterine cancers, osteoporosis, the hot flashes and vaginal dryness of menopause are so common that we sometimes think they're inevitable consequences of being born female. But would nature really do that to us? Would nature design our bodies in such a way that monthly periods should be miserable events and menopause a reason to mourn? Of course not.




 

 

According to John Lee, M.D., our modern lifestyle is largely to blame. High levels of stress, dismal nutrition, and widespread toxins all affect a hormone called progesterone, he says. And therein lies the trouble.

Progesterone is made in the ovaries and released during the last half of the menstrual cycle; small amounts are also made by the adrenals and testes in men. This hormone has several jobs to perform in the body. For one thing, the body bio-synthesizes all the adrenal corticosteroids and all other sex hormones from progesterone (which itself is a product of cholesterol). Progesterone is vital in pregnancy because it maintains the endometrium although excessive progesterone can also block ovulation (which is why birth control pills are made from progesterone). Progesterone also makes the body more receptive to the thyroid hormone and to estrogen. Progesterone is also the perfect counterbalance for estrogen's negative effects.

In fact, the body requires sufficient progesterone as a balance for estrogen. When progesterone levels are lowor estrogen levels are too high a woman will experience symptoms of estrogen dominance. You may be all too familiar with these symptoms. They include water retention, breast swelling, fibrocystic breasts, premenstrual mood swings, depression, loss of libido, heavy or irregular menses, uterine fibroids, cravings for sweets, and weight gain at the hips and thighs.
Many women suffer from these effects of estrogen dominance. And although low progesterone isn't automatically the culprit, it often is. So the question that every woman should ask is, how can I make sure my body has enough progesterone to balance my estrogen without taking in too much progesterone?
(note: you might want to check this hormones page)

By far the best answer is this: Maintain a healthy body.

Healthy, well nourished follicle cells in the ovaries produce a healthy balance of estrogen and progesterone, says Dr. Lee. But when follicle cells are damaged by poor nutrition or toxins, progesterone levels suffer. He suggests a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and cold-pressed oil. Processed foods, pesticides, additives and smoking should be eliminated. Meat should be minimized and alcohol strictly limited. Because the vitamins in our foods have been lowered by storage and deficient soils, Dr. Lee suggests daily supplementation of 2 grams of vitamin C (divided), 400 IU of vitamin E, 15 mg beta carotene, 15-30 mg zinc, and 100-300 mg magnesium.

There is more to that healthy diet than just vitamins, however. More than 5000 plants are known to make sterols that are progestogenic, according to Dr. Lee. In cultures whose diets are rich in fresh vegetables, progesterone deficiency apparently does not exist. Women maintain healthy ovaries and follicles, and at menopause libido remains high and bones remain strong. The July 1992 issue of National Geographic describes a culture found on the Trobriand Islands. In these islands, the yam plant is a sacred totem signifying good health and good life. The people there, who eat a lot of yams, along with other vegetables and fish, are generally healthy, well proportioned and happy. Although their sex life is vigorous, their pregnancy rate is not especially high.

As it happens, the yam is one of those plants especially high in a saponin called diosgenin, a substance with reputed progesterone-like effects. In fact, the pharmaceutical industry extracts diosgenin from wild Mexican yams to make progesterone; it then uses the progesterone to make synthetic progesterone and contraceptive pills. (Soybeans, wool fat and sisal are also used in making progesterone). So the lowly yam would be a logical diet choice for anyone who is suspicious that estrogen has the upper hand in her body.


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Be aware that natural progesterone is safer, cheaper, and more effective than synthetic

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Pharmaceutical researcher Steven Dentali says that diosgenin reportedly has certain medicinal effects, such as reducing fatigue, inflammation and stress. But, he says, the body cannot make progesterone from diosgenin. Because of this, Dentali questions the effectiveness of wild yams as a substitute for progesterone.

Whatever the effect of yams, even an excellent diet can't always correct imbalances. This is partly because of our toxic environment. Women now are exposed to substances called xenoestrogens. These are found in some petrochemical derivatives like pesticides and combustion by-products. Xenoestrogens can be extremely potent estrogenic compounds and can contribute to estrogen dominance. Even eating well can raise our estrogen levels, since many plants contain estrogenic substances called phytoestrogens. And a very few plants contain the real thing. For example, palm-kernel oil contains one form of estrogen called estrone. Then, of course, many women take estrogen supplements.

Another factor in estrogen dominance is stress

Stress (as well as a bad diet) can induce anovulatory menstrual cycles in which no ovulation occurs. These anovulatory cycles are fairly common among women approaching menopause. Without ovulation, no progesterone is produced, but estrogen is. And estrogen unopposed by progesterone leads to those familiar symptoms: PMS, osteoporosis, and all the rest. It also increases the risk of breast cancer.

In fact, anovulatory cycles may be one of the reasons why breast cancer is so common among women in their late thirties and early forties.
When diet alone cannot correct progesterone deficiency, supplementing with natural progesterone can help. Studies have shown that treatment with natural progesterone can increase bone mass in women affected with osteoporosis. Dr. Lee has confirmed this in his own practice. In addition, during 15 years of treating women with natural progesterone, Dr. Lee has found that progesterone treatment protects against salt and water retention, facilitates thyroid hormone activity, shrinks uterine fibroid tumors, and returns fibrocystic breasts to normal. Natural progesterone, says Dr. Lee, helps metabolize fat, is an antidepressant, normalizes blood clotting, restores libido, helps normalize blood sugar levels as well as zinc and copper levels, and restores proper cell oxygen.

Since it sensitizes the body to estrogen, it reduces the need for estrogen supplementation, an important consideration for women already on estrogen. There are, he claims, virtually no side effects to natural progesterone supplementation. On the other hand, synthetic progesterone (Provera, for instance) may actually reduce the amount of progesterone in the blood stream, according to Rabbi Eric Braverman, M.D. Furthermore, synthetic progesterones act differently in the body than the real thing. Unlike natural progesterone, the effects of synthetics cannot be "turned off" when needed. This leads to some sobering side effects.

A progesterone deficiency can have unpleasant, if not disastrous, effects in both premenopausal and postmenopausal women. If you think you might have a deficiency, discuss your symptoms with your health practitioner; a blood test can tell you what your progesterone levels are. If supplementation is called for, be aware that natural progesterone is safer, cheaper, and more effective than synthetic.

Sources
Natural Progesterone by Dr. John R. Lee, M.D. (Sebastopol, California: BLL Publishing, 1993).
Hormone Replacement Therapy: You Have Other Options by Jane Heimlich in Health & Healing (November 1994, Supplement)
Hormones and Yams, What's the Connection? by Stephen Dentali, Ph.D., in The American Herb Association Quarterly Newsletter (Fall 1994).
Hormone Replacement Therapy: You Have Other Options by Jane Heimlich in Health & Healing (November 1994, Supplement)
Hormones and Yams, What's the Connection? by Stephen Dentali, Ph.D., in The American Herb Association Quarterly Newsletter (Fall 1994).