Medically Reviewed by Vincenta Faulkner, RD, CNSC, CCTD
It goes without saying, our bodies are insanely complex. Good health comes from a deeper understanding of what our bodies are, their functions, and how those functions help us live happy, healthy lives.
How do progesterone and cholesterol play a role in our bodily functions? Well, our bodies need cholesterol to make essential steroid hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, and vitamin D.
Let’s uncover the connection between progesterone and cholesterol in our bodies by first getting a better understanding of what progesterone and cholesterol are.
What Is Progesterone?
Progesterone is a steroid hormone that works as a big player in the ovulation cycle. In the back half of the menstrual cycle, an endocrine gland called the corpus luteum produces progesterone, essentially preparing the uterus for the potential for pregnancy.
But what does this have to do with cholesterol?
As women enter menopause, the body produces less progesterone. Research has observed a relationship between the decrease of progesterone and estrogen, one of its building blocks, during menopause. This part of menopausal transition has been observed to happen alongside another symptom of menopause, an increase in cholesterol.
These two symptoms, the decrease in progesterone and the increase of cholesterol levels, has led researchers to examine if there is a causal relationship happening here. Does the decrease of progesterone cause this increase in cholesterol?
To better understand that connection, let’s get into what cholesterol is.
What Is Cholesterol?
You’ve probably heard all about cholesterol. Your doctor may be telling you or your loved ones to keep your cholesterol levels down. Pharmaceutical commercials advertise drugs that help reduce cholesterol that builds plaque in your heart.
We’ve heard all about the negative effects of cholesterol, but what is it really?
Cholesterol is ubiquitous in the body, it’s quite literally everywhere. That’s because it’s found in every cell you have in your body. Cholesterol is essentially a building block for our cells, a substance that allows for the construction of our many, many cells across the body.
We produce it in the body or obtain it from the food we eat. It’s a foundational substance, not only to cell composition, but also to the creation of steroid hormones, like progesterone.
“But I thought cholesterol was bad,” you may be asking yourself.
Given how we’re introduced to cholesterol, it’s understandable why we have a natural aversion to cholesterol.
But as you may have heard already, there is both good and bad cholesterol.
The Difference Between Good and Bad Cholesterol
First, the bad cholesterol — LDL, or low-density lipoprotein. This is the cholesterol that appears all across the body. There’s a lot of it, but when we get too much, that’s when we start to see increases in cardiovascular diseases like heart attack and strokes because it builds up in our blood vessels and makes it harder for our hearts to do their job.
Now for the good kind, HDL. High-density lipoprotein is the good cholesterol that essentially controls our bad cholesterol levels in the body. It’s cholesterol that fights cholesterol; fire fighting fire.
The struggle then is keeping a healthy level of good cholesterol in your body. Too much, and the likelihood of heart disease and other illnesses increases, particularly for in women in menopause or post-menopause.
That’s why researchers are curious about the connection between cholesterol and progesterone.
Do Progesterone and Estrogen Keep Cholesterol Levels Low?
Healthy cholesterol levels in premenopausal women versus male counterparts of a similar age and women in menopausal to post-menopausal stages has encouraged researchers to investigate the connection between progesterone and cholesterol.
What is going on in premenopausal women’s bodies that leaves them so much healthier than those two groups?
Given their absence in the postmenopausal women, the suspicion fell upon estrogen and progesterone. Maybe their decline could be a factor in these menopausal symptoms of raised cholesterol.
In one study, researchers studied a group of baboons to see how the introduction of the hormones estrogen, progesterone, and a mixture of both estrogen and progesterone affected lipoprotein levels in the primate subjects.
How would estrogen, progesterone, and a mixture of both compare to the placebo group? What insights could this study bring to the relationship between these hormones and cholesterol levels?
These researchers wanted to focus on estrogen, progesterone and cholesterol with a razor-sharp focus. Their conclusion was that a certain combination of estrogen and progesterone proved effective in maintaining healthy levels of HDL, the good cholesterol.
In short, one part progesterone, two parts estrogen (in extremely simplified terms!) generally resulted in healthier levels of cholesterol. The one-two punch of estrogen and progesterone, steroid hormones that tend to appear less in women after menopause, appeared to be an effective way to keep a healthy balance of high HDL and low LDL.
But What Effect Did Progesterone Have Specifically?
You may have noticed that a recurring caveat to progesterone’s effects is the estrogen that goes along with it. Our original question wasn’t to explore progesterone and estrogen. It just so happens that these two hormones work together quite well.
While the mixture of estrogen and progesterone in the previously mentioned study demonstrated an encouraging relationship with cholesterol levels, they also found that progesterone alone did not appear to have much of an effect in altering levels of LDL cholesterol, the bad kind.
In fact, the progesterone study group had both more LDL cholesterol post-treatment as well as lower levels of HDL cholesterol. That’s more of the bad and less of the good. Not exactly the most encouraging results.
These findings are reflected in other studies too.
Progesterone Alone Raises Our LDL and Decreases Our HDL
To deepen our understanding of the connection between progesterone and cholesterol, let’s look at areas where progesterone’s effects by itself can be seen more clearly, through its popularity in contraceptive medicine.
Progestin is a synthetic hormone that produces progesterone. It’s used often as a means of birth control and in hormone treatment plans.
To uncover the relationship between estrogen and progestin’s effects on cholesterol, researchers measured the cholesterol levels of 374 women taking oral contraceptives with varying ratios of estrogen and progestin, 284 women taking estrogen in post-menopause, and 1086 women who took no hormones at all–quite a large study group!
With such a large group, they could figure out how high amounts of progestin would compare to lower amounts based on the various dosages found in the contraceptives the women were taking.
So, what happened?
The women taking oral contraceptives with a relatively low dose of estrogen mixed with a medium to a high dose of progestin demonstrated levels of LDL cholesterol 24% higher than the control group, which were the women who took no hormones at all.
The higher presence of progestin appeared to predict a higher level of bad cholesterol.
A low estrogen, high progestin contraceptive even reduced the number of HDL cholesterol in these premenopausal women. That’s less of the good kind.
Alternatively, women taking contraceptives with higher estrogen and lower progestin demonstrated a significantly higher level of HDL. When it comes to that winning combo of estrogen and progesterone, the more estrogen the better.
When paired together in a certain way, estrogen and progestin (that progesterone-producing hormone) appear to have a marked effect in cholesterol levels; a high-low ratio of estrogen to progestin appears to lower LDL and maintain HDL.
So What Is the Connection Between Progesterone and Cholesterol?
Circling back to our initial question, the fact remains: it’s complicated.
Progesterone alone appears to raise LDL cholesterol. But when combined with a higher dose of estrogen, it appears to have remarkable effects in stabilizing HDL levels while keeping LDL levels low. This has led to the exploration of estrogen/progesterone therapy for women with high cholesterol.
What Does This Mean For You?
A deeper understanding of how our bodies work empowers us with the knowledge to endure and overcome when we face health issues.
The connection between progesterone and cholesterol highlights a trend that happens in menopausal stages. When progesterone decreases, cholesterol increases, a phenomenon that frequently comes along with menopause.
But when it comes to treatment, it’s not as simple as replenishing your progesterone — quite the opposite actually. To ensure you’re prepared for changes in your body (or your loved ones’) arming yourself with a deeper understanding helps you protect your long-term health.
Zizi Helps Keep You in Control of Your Cholesterol
We’re here to promote proven methods of managing cholesterol levels by offering helpful research, guidelines, and other resources so that folks ready to make a change in their health are empowered with the knowledge to do so. You can gain access to all this and more by signing on with Zizi’s Heart Health Reset Program.
Our program provides you with supplements you can trust. We also offer you proven exercise programs to help you develop habits that keep you fighting cholesterol on all fronts. To keep you on top of your cholesterol, you get monthly at-home cholesterol test kits so you know where your levels are.
You’ve never had a better ally in your fight against cholesterol with Zizi!
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