This Progesterone Cream Was The One Thing That Eased My Chronic Joint Pain
For several years, I had extreme pain in the tendons and muscles surrounding my ankles and knees, thanks to my undiagnosed chronic Lyme disease. And today—after having been treated with antibiotics for years, and then with a variety of supplements after the Lyme came back a couple of years later—I'd say I'm 90 percent better.
But then a weird thing happened. After feeling mostly symptom-free for several months, I started to notice my pain rear its ugly head for a few days every month. I would be fine for 27-ish days, but then for the next three or four, even taking a few steps would make me wince. And then I'd be fine again. It made absolutely no sense. That is, until I brought it up to my doctor.
Because my pain corresponded with my menstrual cycle—plus the fact that I had pretty intense cramps and mood swings at the same time—she speculated that a hormonal imbalance might be contributing to the problem. Specifically, low progesterone.
To test out her theory, she recommended I apply a small amount of natural OTC progesterone cream (Emerita Pro-Gest, derived from the wild yam and a much lower concentration than prescription progesterone) to the thin skin on my wrists and arms every day for the two weeks leading up to my period.
Being the skeptic that I am, I thought it was a complete waste of money, but also being desperate, I tried it. The verdict: Holy sh*t, it worked. Not only did it make an obvious dent in my pain, but it drastically reduced my menstrual cramps, too.
But before I sing the praises of this natural progesterone cream, let's take a step back. Why was my progesterone low in the first place, and how was it even causing these weird symptoms? That, my friends, can be explained with a quick lesson on hormones.
How chronic health conditions and stress can lower progesterone.
I should mention that during the time I began to notice my monthly pain flare-ups, my dog Milo got very sick. I was constantly bringing him to vet appointments, and eventually the animal hospital. I think I was operating on adrenaline for a solid month, and then the worst happened—he died, and the grief was intense. To say I was stressed out is a vast understatement. And that stress, paired with the fact that I was still getting over a chronic health condition (another stressor on the body), was apparently what caused my progesterone levels to take a nose-dive.
"In a stressful period, when your body is basically in fight-or-flight, the body prioritizes the production of cortisol," says Kristann Heinz, M.D., R.D., a doctor board-certified with the American Board of Integrative-Holistic Medicine, who also happens to be my doctor. "When this happens, the precursor hormones that normally go toward making our sex hormones get diverted to make cortisol. Because of this, we get this phenomenon called 'progesterone steal,' where instead of progesterone being made as the final product, the precursor [pregnenolone] gets shunted to make cortisol because that's the priority at that moment."
Some other things that your body can interpret as stress, which can also lead to progesterone steal: chronic viral infections, hidden food allergies, and super-intense exercise. For some women, low progesterone can result in intense mood swings and cramping, poor sleep quality, a general lack of resiliency, and anxiety. "Progesterone is a precursor to GABA, the biggest relaxing neurotransmitter in the body; so when levels get low, that's why people can have anxiety and trouble sleeping," explains Dr. Heinz.
For me, I had nearly all of these symptoms just before my period (when progesterone is supposed to be highest), plus ankle and knee pain. But why the ankle and knee pain? It's not a classic low-progesterone symptom, after all. "Progesterone is a smooth muscle relaxer," says Dr. Heinz. "So when women go through high progesterone states like pregnancy, they often get very loose and limber because their muscles are really relaxed. For you, it's not 100 percent clear if this was the case, but your pain may have been a form of muscle cramping or tension."
Cramping or tension or whatever, it certainly got better after using the cream, so I'm inclined to believe my doctor's theory and continue using it. But that doesn't mean I have to use it forever. "Usually I say, let's try this for six months. The goal is to use it for a limited amount of time to support the body while simultaneously addressing what got you into this situation in the first place," says Dr. Heinz. And then, you stop.
For me, that means using this progesterone cream while simultaneously implementing stress management practices like yoga and continuing to manage and treat my chronic Lyme. For other women, that could mean working on identifying a hidden food allergy or quitting a toxic job or relationship. It's just a little something to help you get over the hump as you identify the root cause of your low progesterone; it's not the "cure."
Other ways to boost progesterone naturally.
Beyond progesterone creams, there are several simple ways you can boost your progesterone levels naturally, says Dr. Heinz—and, if your progesterone levels are only slightly depleted, implementing these strategies may be all it takes to get you back into balance:
- Eat an anti-inflammatory diet. Anything overly processed is going to contribute to inflammation, which in turn contributes to the cortisol stress response.
- Move your body. Exercise is a great tool for stress management and maintaining your hormone levels. And you don't have to go all out. Research has actually found that lower intensity exercise (think brisk walking) is linked to lower cortisol levels.
- Prioritize sleep and self-care. Yoga, mindfulness meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, and body scanning can all help you chill out.
- Consider certain supplements. According to functional naturopathic medicine doctor Jolene Brighten, N.D., magnesium, antioxidants like vitamin C, rhodiola rosea (an adaptogenic herb), vitamin B6, and chaste tree berry can all play a role in maintaining healthy progesterone levels.
I want to emphasize that this is my experience, and not everyone who has intense aches and pains and cramps and mood swings needs a progesterone cream or even has low progesterone in the first place. In fact, some people shouldn't use a natural progesterone cream at all (breastfeeding and pregnant women, among others).
If you do suspect low progesterone, chat with your doctor or find an integrative or functional medicine practitioner knowledgeable in hormones who can help confirm or deny your hunch after assessing your symptoms and/or running a blood or saliva test.
Above all, I hope my experience inspires you to tune into your body and notice patterns that indicate something's not quite right—because things you may have brushed off as random or unavoidable may actually be completely treatable.
Stephanie Eckelkamp is a writer and editor who has been working for leading health publications for the past 10 years. She received her B.S. in journalism from Syracuse University with a minor in nutrition. In addition to contributing to mindbodygreen, she has written for Women's Health, Prevention, and Health. She is also a certified holistic health coach through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. She has a passion for natural, toxin-free living, particularly when it comes to managing issues like anxiety and chronic Lyme disease (read about how she personally overcame Lyme disease here).