Having a miscarriage is a heartbreaking experience. But a new study shows that taking progesterone, a hormone the body also makes naturally, may help some women who have experienced miscarriage carry a healthy baby to term.
The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, looked at 4,153 pregnant women who had early pregnancy bleeding, which is associated with miscarriage. The results were not strong enough to conclude that progesterone could help all women at risk for miscarriage. However, researchers did find a 4% increase in the number of babies born to women in the study who were given progesterone and had previously had one or two miscarriages, compared to those given a placebo.
Progesterone is essential for stabilizing the uterine (or endometrial) lining, which is crucial for healthy embryo development. Progesterone supplements have long been recommended for women struggling with infertility, but many doctors still disagree on their effectiveness.
Christine Greves, MD, an ob-gyn at the center for obstetrics and gynecology at Orlando Health in Florida, tells Health that research on progesterone is still emerging, making it a controversial topic. The important thing to understand, though, is that taking progesterone supplements will not necessarily help you get pregnant or prevent miscarriage. "It all depends on a person's individual history," Dr. Greves says.
Progesterone has, however, been shown to decrease the risk of endometrial cancer for menopausal women who are taking estrogen.
Taking estrogen to treat symptoms of menopause (also known as menopausal hormone therapy) can help reduce hot flashes, improve vaginal dryness, and prevent weakening of the bones (osteoporosis). But using estrogen alone (without progesterone) can also lead to endometrial cancer. Progesterone supplements must be given with estrogen (which is called combination hormone therapy) to reduce that risk, Dr. Greves says.
Progesterone may also help women going through menopause if they're having difficulty sleeping, she adds.
Dr. Greves says another of progesterone's benefits is that it may help women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) whose bodies don't produce enough natural progesterone. The body typically produces progesterone after ovulation, but many women with PCOS don't ovulate. Taking progesterone supplements can help regulate their cycle.
Finally, progesterone may also help prevent preterm birth in women who have previously had a baby prematurely or who have a short cervix, which is a risk factor for preterm birth. Data shows that for mothers in either of those categories who are carrying just one baby, progesterone can reduce the risk of delivering early by about one third, Dr. Greves says.
Before taking progesterone supplements, the most important thing is to speak to your doctor, especially if you're pregnant. Progesterone may or may not work for you, but only your MD can say whether it's worth trying.