Ovulation gets a lot of attention when you’re trying to conceive. But ovulation is just step one. What follows ovulation is just as important for pregnancy.
The luteal phase is the post-ovulatory part of your cycle – and it can make or break a pregnancy. It’s when the fertilized egg travels to the uterus and implants in your uterine wall.
This process takes time – and the right hormone balance. If the luteal phase is cut short, the body may not have enough time to prepare for pregnancy. This can increase the risk of implantation failure and miscarriage.
So how do you fix a short luteal phase? Luckily, it’s not as complicated as you think! With the right diet and lifestyle changes, you can lengthen your luteal phase and increase your chances of pregnancy.
In this article, we’ll cover how to tell if you have a short luteal phase, what causes it, and what foods to eat and avoid to lengthen your luteal phase.
What is the luteal phase?
The luteal phase is part of your menstrual cycle that starts after you ovulate and ends when your period begins. It’s the part of your cycle where fertilization and implantation occur, so it’s crucial for pregnancy.
To understand this phase better let’s do a brief recap on your menstrual cycle:
- Menstruation (aka your period) marks the beginning of your menstrual cycle. During your period, your uterus cleans shop by shedding your uterine lining. Menstruation usually lasts anywhere between two to eight days.
- The follicular phase (first half of your cycle) starts the first day of your period. During this phase, a follicle containing an egg develops inside of one of your ovaries. The follicular phase typically lasts around 17 days on average. However, this can vary.
- Ovulation occurs 12-14 days before your next cycle. When you ovulate, the follicle releases the mature egg into the fallopian tubes, where it may be fertilized.
- The luteal phase begins after an egg is released. During this phase, the ruptured follicle transforms into a structure called the corpus luteum. The corpus luteum then secretes progesterone.
Progesterone is the hormone that preps your body for pregnancy. It helps thicken the endometrium, which creates an ideal home for the fertilized egg to attach.
How long is the luteal phase?
A normal luteal phase is usually between 12 to 14 days long. But like menstrual cycles, luteal phase length varies.
The lifespan of the corpus luteum is between 11 to 17 days. For this reason, luteal phases usually aren’t over 17 days long. A short luteal phase is considered any that is 11 days or less (including ovulation day).
Having a short luteal phase can make it more difficult to get pregnant. That’s why it’s important to track your menstrual cycle if you’re trying to conceive.
How can I naturally lengthen my luteal phase?
If you’re looking to lengthen your luteal phase, start with your diet. Certain vitamins support progesterone production, which may lengthen your luteal phase naturally.
Eating more foods rich in these nutrients may help treat luteal phase deficiency.
One study found that women with luteal phase defects who took vitamin C supplements had higher progesterone levels and higher pregnancy rates. What’s more, women who have repeated miscarriages are more likely to be deficient in vitamin C.
You can boost your vitamin C levels by eating foods rich in this nutrient such as:
- Bell peppers
Vitamin C supplementation can also help. While the RDA for vitamin C is 75 mg, you can safely take up to 2,000 mg a day.
In the study cited above, subjects took 750 mg of vitamin C to boost progesterone. Vitamin C is water-soluble, so any excess is excreted in your urine.
Vitamin B6 is another vitamin that’s key to progesterone production. In one study, women who were low on vitamin B6 were twice as likely to have a miscarriage. And women with low vitamin B6 had a preterm birth 50% more than those with higher vitamin B6 levels.
Eating plenty of foods rich in vitamin B6 supports your body’s natural progesterone production.
Foods high in vitamin B6 include:
- Sweet potato
Taking a vitamin B6 supplement is another option. If you go this route, be sure to take it in a B-complex formula. That way you’ll get the right balance of all your B vitamins.
Oxidative stress can harm the corpus luteum. This can, in turn, harm progesterone production.
Enter antioxidants. Antioxidants protect your body from oxidative stress by stabilizing free radicals. Research shows women with luteal phase defects are more likely to be low on antioxidants.
You can boost your antioxidant status by eating more antioxidant-rich foods like:
- Kidney beans
- Dark chocolate
- Red cabbage
Your body needs fat to make hormones, including progesterone. So be sure to include plenty of healthy fats in your diet, such as:
- Olive oil
- Coconut oil
Vitex, also known as Chaste Berry, is an herbal supplement that’s often used to promote hormone balance. It’s taken for PMS symptoms, irregular periods, and symptoms of menopause. But it also helps lengthen the luteal phase.
In one study, women with luteal phase deficiencies took 20 mg of Vitex. After three months, their luteal phases had normalized.
If you decide to take Vitex, be sure to work with an herbalist or healthcare practitioner. That way you can find the correct dosage for your body.
What to avoid during the luteal phase?
Avoiding certain foods during the luteal phase may also support progesterone production.
Foods to limit or avoid include:
- Sugary foods & refined carbs: This includes pastries, cookies, cake, white bread, and white rice. These foods spike your blood sugar. And when your blood sugar is off, it can throw off your hormones.
- Caffeine: Caffeine increases the stress hormone cortisol. And when cortisol is high, it interferes with progesterone production.
- Alcohol: Research shows women who drink moderately (3-6 drinks/week) or heavily (> 6 drinks/week) during the luteal phase are less likely to get pregnant than those who don’t.
- Soy: Soy foods like edamame, tofu, and soy milk contain phytoestrogens, plant compounds that mimic estrogen in the body. Eating too many of these foods may lead to an imbalance between estrogen and progesterone.
Importance of the luteal phase
Pregnancy doesn’t officially begin after fertilization. It begins after implantation, when the fertilized egg burrows itself into your uterine wall.
If the luteal phase is too short, it may not allow enough time for the uterine lining to thicken enough to support implantation.
After an egg is fertilized by a sperm in the fallopian tubes, it travels to the uterus. Once there, it attaches to the endometrium. This process is known as implantation. It happens between 6 to 12 days past ovulation (DPO). However, 8-10 DPO are most common.
But implantation doesn’t happen overnight. So if your luteal phase is too short, it may not allow your progesterone to reach the levels needed for implantation.
For implantation to be a success, you need sufficient progesterone to nourish the uterine wall – so the egg will stick. Ideally, this would mean serum progesterone levels above 10 ng/mL before progesterone peaks at 6-8 DPO.
How can I tell I’m in the luteal phase?
As you enter the luteal phase and progesterone rises, your body may give you some signs.
Here are a few ways to tell if you’re in the luteal phase:
Basal body temperature (BBT)
As progesterone rises, so does your basal body temperature. So after ovulation, you should notice a slight rise (between 0.5 to 1.0 degrees F) in your BBT.
Since progesterone remains high throughout your luteal phase, so does BBT. If fertilization doesn’t occur, your BBT will drop right before your period starts. But if you get pregnant, your BBT will stay high throughout the first trimester.
But during the luteal phase, cervical mucus gets dry and thick, similar to a paste. This protects the uterus from bacteria and other infections that may disrupt implantation.
Luteal phase symptoms
Some, but not all women, may experience luteal phase symptoms, which are due to progesterone’s rise.
Luteal phase symptoms are similar to PMS symptoms and may include:
- Tender or swollen breasts
- Mood swings
- Skin breakouts
- Appetite changes
- Low libido
Keep in mind, some women may not notice any luteal phase symptoms at all. Testing your hormones is the only way to know for sure if you’re in the luteal phase.
Can I use an OPK to track my luteal phase?
Nope. Ovulation predictor kits (OPKs) do just what the name implies. They predict ovulation – but they don’t confirm it. This is because OPKs measure luteinizing hormone (LH), which surges 24-48 hours before an egg is released.
When LH reaches surge levels, an OPK will give a positive result, meaning ovulation is on its way.
The trouble is, an LH surge doesn’t always result in ovulation. In fact, it’s estimated that a third of all menstrual cycles are anovulatory, meaning ovulation didn’t occur. So basing your results on LH alone can lead to a false positive.
So how can you confirm ovulation and pinpoint when your luteal phase begins? Track your progesterone. Progesterone rises after you ovulate. So when progesterone shoots up, your luteal phase has officially started.
How can I check my progesterone?
There are a couple of options. One is to visit your doctor or fertility specialist for a serum progesterone test. You’ll need to make a few visits, as you can’t tell much from a single test.
Progesterone levels vary a lot from day to day and even hour to hour. So one test can’t give you a clear picture of your progesterone levels. To get the best gauge, most experts recommend testing your progesterone at least three times during the luteal phase.
You can also track your progesterone metabolite PdG levels in your urine from the comfort of your home.
How to check my PdG levels?
Track your progesterone metabolite PdG with the Inito Fertility Monitor. Inito measures your estrogen, LH, FSH (follicle stimulating hormone), and PdG, a metabolite of progesterone – all from one urine test.
This allows you to check your progesterone metabolite PdG from home, anytime you like. Checking your PdG levels can help you confirm that you actually ovulated.
What is a luteal phase defect?
A luteal phase defect (also known as luteal phase deficiency) is when the body has trouble preparing the uterus for pregnancy.
Luteal phase defects may be due to low progesterone levels or difficulty responding to progesterone. More on this later…
Symptoms of luteal phase defects may include:
- Shorter menstrual cycles
- Shorter luteal phases
- Lighter periods
- Spotting between periods
Scientists believe luteal phase defects are due to problems with the corpus luteum. As mentioned, the corpus luteum produces progesterone throughout the luteal phase. So when corpus luteum function is poor, progesterone production suffers.
What causes luteal phase defects?
Progesterone’s rise in the luteal phase helps the uterine lining to grow thicker. This helps the fertilized egg implant. But if progesterone is too low, the lining of the uterus may not grow thick enough to support a developing embryo.
This can make it hard to get pregnant – and stay pregnant. In fact, women who miscarry have progesterone levels 48% lower than women who deliver at full-term.
Luteal phase defects can also occur from the body not responding to progesterone properly. In this case, progesterone levels may be high, but the endometrium isn’t responding to the hormone.
Certain lifestyle habits and health issues are also linked with luteal phase deficiency, including:
- PCOS: This hormonal imbalance is marked by high levels of androgens and ovulation issues. Not ovulating regularly leads to low progesterone levels.
- Endometriosis: Luteal phase defects are more common among women with endometriosis. This is when endometrial tissue goes rogue and grows outside your uterus.
- Smoking: Short luteal phases are significantly more common among smokers.
- Extreme exercise: Regular exercise supports hormone balance. But vigorous exercise is linked with short luteal phases.
- Stress: The stress hormone cortisol is made of the same material as progesterone. So when you’re stressed, your body prioritizes cortisol production over progesterone.
- Hypothyroidism: Low thyroid hormone is linked with low progesterone.
- Anorexia or obesity: Both conditions can disrupt your hormone balance.
Can you still get pregnant with a short luteal phase?
Yep, but it is more difficult. That said, if you have a short luteal phase, don’t worry! Many women have a short luteal phase now and then. Often, they level out and return to a healthier rhythm over time.
For example, one study tracked the menstrual cycles of 284 women. They found that 18% of women had a short luteal phase at least once. Yet only 3% of women had recurrent short luteal phases.
They learned that women with a short luteal phase in the first cycle were less likely to get pregnant for six months. But after twelve months, there was no difference. This suggests that having a short luteal phase may reduce fertility in the short term, but not in the long term.
Can I get pregnant in the luteal phase?
Yes, but only on the first day of the luteal phase. An egg only survives 12-24 hours after it’s released. But sperm can live in the reproductive tract for up to 5 days.
So your best bet for getting pregnant is to have sex in the five days before ovulation. That way when an egg is released, a sperm is there to meet it.
One study found that couples who had sex the day after ovulation had an 8% chance of getting pregnant. Couples who had sex the day before ovulation had a 42% chance of pregnancy. Much better odds, eh?
Having sex on the first day of your luteal phase sure won’t hurt! But for the best chances of pregnancy, make sure you do the deed before ovulation too.
Can progesterone cream help lengthen the luteal phase?
Possibly. Progesterone creams are a natural form of hormone replacement therapy, made from wild yams. Evidence shows that progesterone cream can boost progesterone levels and reduce menopause symptoms.
Progesterone creams are available over the counter. Still, it’s a good idea to check in with your doctor before starting progesterone cream. Applying too much could lead to side effects like nausea, drowsiness, headaches, or breast pain.
Having a short luteal phase can make it more difficult to conceive and stay pregnant if not addressed. But with the right diet and lifestyle, you can lengthen your luteal phase. Not smoking, managing stress, and eating a nutritious diet are good places to start. Treating any underlying health conditions, such as thyroid disorders is a must as well.
- A short luteal phase is considered any that are 11 days or less.
- Having a shortened luteal phase can interfere with fertility and increase the risk of miscarriage.
- Luteal phase defects can occur due to low progesterone, or problems responding to progesterone.
- Tracking your progesterone metabolite PdG with Inito can help you understand your luteal phase better by tracking your fertile window and confirming that you ovulated.
- You can lengthen your luteal phase naturally by eating foods rich in vitamin C, vitamin B6, antioxidants, and healthy fats.