Two of the most common questions I get are how do I lengthen your luteal phase and how to lengthen your cycle in general. Great questions indeed because I am personally familiar with the issue of having a too-short luteal phase and the suffering it causes me and the people around me (hee hee).
What is the Luteal Phase?
The third phase of a woman’s menstrual cycle is known as the Luteal Phase – the time between the day after ovulation occurs and the day before the start of your period. It is during this time when progesterone rises in your cycle and it’s also when fertilization and implantation occurs (if one is trying to get pregnant).
Once ovulation occurs, progesterone rises thanks to the corpus luteum on the ovary, which is the temporary endocrine gland that forms from the follicle that released the egg. The health of the follicle and corpus luteum plays a big role in how much progesterone you produce.
And how much progesterone you produce will determine how long your luteal phase lasts. This is because progesterone holds your uterine lining in place. Once it starts to drop, this signals to your endometrium that it’s time to go, and you get your period!
How long should the Luteal Phase be?
The luteal phase is the longest phase of your cycle and on average is between 10-16 days. If it’s consistently less than 10 days (3 months or more), you have what is known as a short luteal phase. This is often referred to as Luteal Phase Defect, which is a common cause of fertility trouble for women.
This is because a fertilized egg can take about 10-15 days after fertilization to actually make it to the uterus and implant into the uterine lining. A luteal phase less than 10 days long does not give the egg a sufficient amount of time to make it to the uterus. This can result in early miscarriage.
Second, the uterine lining needs a sufficient amount of progesterone to make it nice and cushy for the fertilized egg to implant. If it isn’t thick enough, the egg can’t implant and gets lost in early miscarriage.
What causes a short Luteal Phase?
Naturally, any disruption in your luteal phase can be cause for concern. Not only does it affect your menstrual cycle on a whole, it ultimately can affect your overall health and fertility.
Luckily, a short luteal phase is an issue that can be easily addressed for most women through diet and natural therapies.
There are a couple of reasons behind a shorter than normal luteal phase but the most common is low progesterone. As I said, progesterone production is very much determined by the health of the follicle from which the egg was released.
Progesterone is needed for building and preserving the uterine lining during the luteal phase and maintaining a pregnancy during the first trimester. If progesterone does not elevate enough after ovulation or if it drops too soon before your period, you may have a luteal phase defect (LPD).
This also affects a lot of other aspects of your health too. I refer to progesterone as the “keep calm and carry on” hormone because it is calming to your nervous system throughout the pre-menstrual phase. It’s also helps to keep estrogen in check, which if it becomes dominant over progesterone can lead to heavier periods, longer periods and shorter overall menstrual cycles (luteal phase defect in full effect).
What are the main causes of low progesterone?
- Stress (oh yes!) – When we are chronically stressed, our adrenal glands produce too much cortisol. You might not think there is a connection between cortisol and progesterone but they are intimately linked. Cortisol’s production comes first before all other hormone production because it is a “life and death” hormone. Cortisol and progesterone compete for the same hormone production pathway, so unfortunately cortisol always wins because the body prioritizes its production over progesterone (which is only needed for reproduction and not survival).
- Ovulation from an unhealthy follicle – after ovulation occurs, the follicle in the ovary becomes the corpus luteum, which produces progesterone. Essentially, ovulation is the catalyst for progesterone production so it’s safe to say that if you’re not ovulating regularly or your follicle isn’t healthy, there will be inadequate progesterone production.
- Low thyroid – if your thyroid is not producing adequate thyroid hormone, you will not make enough progesterone. The reason for this is that you need a certain amount of thyroid hormone to make pregnenolone (the mother hormone to progesterone) which then makes progesterone. Without proper thyroid hormone, progesterone production can suffer. This is why low thyroid (hypothyroid) is linked to heavier and more painful periods.
Other issues and conditions linked to low progesterone:
- Endometriosis – an inflammatory disease in which tissue that is similar to the kind of tissue that grows in the uterus grows outside of the uterus (instead of just on the inside). Studies have found that women with endometriosis tend to have lower progesterone levels or a short luteal phase. Please read my in-depth blog post on endometriosis.
- Anxiety and panic attacks – progesterone acts like a natural valium, in that it helps to keep us calm, so it makes sense that low progesterone may cause anxiety and even panic attacks in some women.
- PMS – this is of course related to #2, but PMS includes over 100 different physical and emotional symptoms that are debilitating for millions of women each month. Read my in-depth post on causes and solutions for PMS.
So, now that you are all in the know about low progesterone and short luteal phases, you probably want to know what to do about them!
Luteal Phase Defect/Low Progesterone Solutions:
First, if you feel that you might be suffering from low progesterone, I recommend taking this at home Progesterone test to confirm if your levels are off. And be sure to use coupon code Hormones20 to get 20% off all tests at Lets Get Checked.
If your progesterone levels are low, your diet is the foundation for optimal hormonal health so you always want to start there. Supplements and botanicals that are proven effective are another awesome addition to your health protocol. I’ve also mentioned some additional practices you can implement in addition to the food and supplements.
#1 Vitamin C – this is the only vitamin that has been shown to increase progesterone levels in women. Foods rich in vitamin C are bell peppers, broccoli, brussel sprouts, papaya, strawberries and oranges. The daily recommended dosage is a measly 75mg but you should be aiming for 750mg/day of this vitamin. If you choose to supplement, make sure you get a high quality product. My favorite options are Seeking Health Vitamin C powder or Livon Labs Liposomal Vitamin C. Vitamin C is water soluble so any excess will be excreted.
#2 Eat your leafy green veggies – kale, collard greens, spinach, swiss chard and mustard greens should be an everyday indulgence! Leafy green vegetables are high in the B-complex vitamins and many minerals which are essential for hormone regulation. They are also super high in magnesium and calcium, which helps to raise low progesterone. Focus on getting 2-4 cups of cooked and raw leafies into your diet each day. Trust me you will quickly see and feel a difference if you get this amount of greens into your life! 🙂
#3 Essential fatty acids – in particular, Omega-3 fatty acids. Good sources of omega-3’s are wild-caught salmon and halibut, sardines, walnuts and chia seeds. I also highly recommend Rosita Real Foods Cod Liver Oil (I prefer the liquid over the capsules) or Designs for Health OmegaAvail.
#4 Adequate dietary cholesterol – All steroid hormones including progesterone, are synthesized from pregnenolone, which is derived from cholesterol. So you want to make sure you have adequate consumption of dietary cholesterol from foods such as organic grass fed animal protein, pastured eggs and grass-fed butter.
#1 Vitex (Chasteberry) – a native to Greece and Italy, vitex has been used for centuries to treat a wide range of female health conditions. Numerous studies show that it helps to restore normal progesterone levels by increasing the production of luteinizing hormone which prompts ovulation, ultimately increasing progesterone production. Vitex is available in capsules or tincture and the standard dosage is 1000mg/day. I like Gaia Herbs Vitex Berry. You can read my blog post about whether Vitex is right for you here.
#2 Saffron – yes, the same spice that you use in the kitchen. Saffron has been found to be effective in addressing symptoms of low progesterone such as painful periods, PMS and even depression. All you need is just 15mg/day of this bright yellow beauty. That is basically just a tiny sprinkle on one meal.
#3 Vitamin B6 – While the B-Complex vitamins have a profound effect on hormonal health, it is vitamin B6 that has been found to be most effective on the luteal phase. I recommend you get yourself a B Complex with the active forms of B2, B6, B9 and B12. I love Thorne Research Basic B Complex which contains all of these.
Remember, active forms of B vitamins (folate, B6 and B12) are necessary for people with MTHFR mutations. Please read my post on MTHFR here.
#4 Selenium – Selenium is a potent antioxidant that helps to protect the thyroid from heavy metal exposure. It is also involved in T4 to T3 conversion and helps to decrease the antibodies that are seen in Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. A healthy thyroid is highly beneficial for fertility in both women and men. For women, selenium is seen in very high quantities in the follicles, where it appears to be required for healthy follicle development. I recommend Thorne Research Selenomethionine selenium supplement.
#5 Phosphatidylserine – Yeah, how the heck do you even pronounce that one right? Good thing you don’t have to be a good speller to reap the benefits of this phospholipid. There is now quite a bit of evidence showing that phosphatidylserine significantly dampens the effect of external stress on the HPA axis (hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis – which determines how you handle stress), and helps you manage stress-related disorders. I recommend about 400-800mg a day of PS but start at 400mg and work your way up if you. Integrative Therapeutics Phosphatidylserine is the one I recommend.
#1 Charting your period – I highly recommend using the Fertility Awareness Method to chart your cycle. This will show you how long your luteal phase is in each cycle and help you determine if there is an issue. You might also consider buying a basal thermometer like the Wink or the the Daysy or the Ava bracelet which can help you determine if/when you are ovulating and if your cycles are regular.
#2 Acupuncture – there are a number of reasons why acupuncture works to smooth out hormonal imbalances. Many women report regulated cycles and increased fertility after doing weekly acupuncture sessions. I recommend an acupuncture session once a week for at least three months to see if it works for you. If you can’t get to an acupuncturist or you don’t like needles, check out Aimee Raupp’s free Fertility Enhancing Acupressure Guide. Aimee is the fertility acupuncturist extraordinaire and this guide includes a worksheet and video discussing location, function and the emotional correlation of each acupressure point and is a great way to regulate your hormones and optimize your fertility from the comfort of your own home.
#3 Hang out with your girlfriends – spending time with your gal pals reduces perceived stress and lowers cortisol levels. As I mentioned above, lowering cortisol is the key to boosting progesterone production. So make it a priority every week to get together with your peeps! Taking care of yourself should be of utmost importance.
I recommend implementing foods, supplements and practices over a period of 3-6 cycles. You may notice changes sooner but on average, women require this amount of time to see positive effects. When progesterone is in balance all is well in the world. You have regular periods, your cycles are anywhere from 25-35 days, there is no spotting or flooding, your weight remains stable throughout your cycle, and you are naturally fertile. Yay!