We’re all familiar with how your hormones can cause mood problems.
It’s well-documented that low testosterone levels and low thyroid hormone levels  are linked to irritability, and high estrogen levels during menopause and PMS can lead to higher risk of anxiety, depression, and mood swings .
But there’s one hormone that really plays a potent role in regulating your mood and mental health, and it’s one that doesn’t get talked about a lot.
That’s right: I’m talking about progesterone.
Below, we’re going to take a closer look at how progesterone affects your mental health, how it impacts your mood and your brain function more than you realize.
We’ll also share some practical advice on how you can manage your progesterone levels naturally to maintain good, stable mental health.
Progesterone is a hormone secreted by the corpus luteum in the female ovaries , typically released during the second half of your menstrual cycle. It’s critical for not only the menstrual cycle, but also plays a significant role in pregnancy, as it prepares your body for pregnancy in the case that the egg is fertilized.
Typically, progesterone levels are at their highest during peak fertility periods. If the egg fails to be fertilized, the corpus luteum begins to break down, and progesterone levels fall as a result.
The pituitary gland is responsible for releasing luteinizing hormone, which causes the corpus luteum to form—and progesterone to rise with it. It’s rare that the human body can make too much progesterone; typically, fertility issues are the result of insufficient progesterone during the time when it’s most needed.
According to scientific research , “progesterone has multiple non-reproductive functions in the central nervous system to regulate cognition, mood, inflammation, mitochondrial function, neurogenesis and regeneration, myelination and recovery from traumatic brain injury.”
Though the hormone is most typically associated with female reproductive health and the menstrual cycle, as you can see, it’s also directly linked to your brain—not just your brain function, but also the regulation of your emotions and cognitive functions, as well as healing.
When your progesterone levels are balanced—in equilibrium with estrogen, the other fertility hormone—you’re more likely to experience good mental health. During the periods of high progesterone (in the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle), you’re typically less aggressive, less irritable, and less prone to fatigue.
Unfortunately, when progesterone levels ultimately drop (leading up to menstruation), you experience the mood swings and irritability common among PMS. If the progesterone levels drop very sharply, it can grow serious enough to be categorized as PMDD. PMDD is characterized by much more severe symptoms--not just physical, but mental, including anxiety, anger, depression, and mood swings.
Women who suffer from low progesterone levels are also more like to develop post-partum depression after their pregnancy, which is an even more serious mental health problem characterized by irritability, fatigue, loss of appetite, and, in severe cases, thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
Progesterone can be used to treat PPD, as elevating progesterone levels is known to alleviate the irritability and mood swings. However, as one study  said, progesterone can be a “two-edged sword”. Using it to treat post-partum depression can increase the risk of PMS and PMDD symptoms.
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If you’re suffering from mental health issues as a result of low progesterone—be it anxiety, depression or post-partum depression, fatigue, irritability, and mood swings—you’ll be glad to know there are things you can do to naturally raise progesterone levels.
For very severe cases, there are medications (including synthetic progesterone) that can help. However, it’s always worth trying the natural route first—there’s a real possibility you can alleviate the problems on your own, or you can learn for sure if low progesterone is the cause of your mental health struggles.
To increase your progesterone levels:
Eat more healthy fats. The term “healthy fats” refers largely to plant-based fats, such as the fats found in nuts, seeds, avocadoes, olives, virgin olive oil, virgin coconut oil, and nut butters. The fat from fish and eggs is also a good addition to your diet. Your body needs more of these fats in order to produce hormones—including progesterone—so it’s important to ensure you always have sufficient fat in your diet. Steer clear of any unnatural, processed fats (like trans fats and hydrogenated oils), as they’ll actually interfere with your endocrine function.
Eat chocolate. Now you’ve got a valid excuse! Dark chocolate (with a cacao content higher than 70%) contains magnesium, a mineral critical for ovulation and the production of progesterone. The higher the cacao content, the better it will be for your endocrine health.
Get more zinc. Try taking a zinc supplement and eating foods rich in zinc, including fish, eggs, shellfish, seeds, and nuts. Zinc helps to regulate progesterone levels and encourages the pituitary gland to produce more of the hormones crucial to the second half of your menstrual cycle.
Get more B vitamins. In particular, Vitamin B6, which is directly linked to the regulation of your hormones. Consuming between 200 and 800 mg of Vitamin B6 per day can control estrogen and elevate progesterone to the point where you can improve PMS symptoms, reduce miscarriage rates, and increase fertility .
Regulate your weight. When you gain a lot of weight, it’s common for estrogen levels to rise and progesterone levels to fall (what is called “estrogen dominance”). This can contribute to (or exacerbate) low progesterone levels and the associated mental and physical symptoms. Keeping your body within a healthy weight range and body fat percentage can go a long way toward restoring a healthy endocrine balance.
Exercise in moderation. Exercise is crucial for endocrine function and the regulation of your hormones. It also encourages healthier pituitary gland function and encourages a better balance of all your internal systems. However, exercising in excess can impact your menstrual cycle and fertility negatively. Excessive high-intensity, extreme energy-burning exercise may be a contributing factor to low progesterone. Make sure you’re giving yourself plenty of days to rest and recover from any intense exercise.
Cut caffeine. You may not need to eliminate caffeine entirely from your diet, but reducing it significantly may be a good way to increase progesterone levels naturally. Caffeine can have a direct impact on your endocrine hormones , increasing your risk of becoming estrogen dominant and potentially lowering progesterone. As long as you stay within a “healthy” amount of caffeine—no more than 400 mg per day—you shouldn’t be affected. However, those who drink in excess may find caffeine is the cause of their low progesterone.
Limit stress. Stress triggers the production and release of the hormone cortisol, which actually blocks the progesterone receptors in your body and makes the progesterone you’re naturally producing less effective. The physiological response to stress may be causing low progesterone symptoms even if your progesterone levels are normal. Managing stress is crucial for maintaining healthy endocrine function. Try meditation, Yoga, walking in nature, swimming, practicing mindfulness, and any other physically and mentally relaxing activities you enjoy to help manage and combat stress.
As you can see, this hormone does more than just regulate fertility—it also is directly linked to your mental and emotional health. Being proactive with your lifestyle, diet, and exercise choices will help you to regulate progesterone levels and take back control of your wellbeing on a fundamental level.
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