Clinical profile of contraceptive progestins

Eur J Contracept Reprod Health Care. 2004 Sep;9(3):182-93. doi: 10.1080/13625180400007736.


The term progestogen has been widely utilized to indicate the general class of agents that includes both progesterone and its synthetic analogs, whereas the term progestin refers only to synthetic progestational steroids. The development of progestins has been influenced in a major way by the search for orally active hormonal contraceptives, since it is likely that hormonal contraceptives will continue to utilize a progestin, the only possible alternative being represented by the utilization of antiprogestins. Synthetic progestogens in clinical use today belong to three main chemical families: progesterone derivatives (progesterone, retro-progesterone, 19-norprogesterone and 17alpha-hydroxyprogesterone); gonane and 19-nortestosterone derivatives (norethisterone, levonorgestrel, desogestrel, gestodene, norgestimate); a spironolactone derivative. Biological potency of progestogens varies depending on the end-point measured, usually ovulation inhibition and endometrial transformation; with both these tests, the most active compounds are all gonane derivatives, with a potency over a 100 times that of the natural hormone. When administered in adequate doses, a progestin inhibits fertility by inhibiting ovulation. This action is mainly exerted at the hypothalamic level where, physiologically, progesterone decreases the number of LH pulses. When progestogens are delivered directly to the uterine cavity, their action seems to be purely local. It has been amply proven that--even when administered in doses that do not constantly inhibit ovulation--a progestin can still remain effective as a contraceptive by acting at the level of the cervical mucus and, at least in part, of the endometrium. Progestogens utilized today differ largely in their pharmacokinetics. In general, after intake, these compounds are rapidly absorbed and distributed so that peak serum concentrations are reached between 1 and 4 h. Third-generation progestins (desogestrel, gestodene, norgestimate) have common characteristics: a higher affinity for progesterone receptors than their predecessors, a lower affinity for androgen receptors, a higher selectivity of action, a higher central inhibitory activity, a higher potency at the level of the endometrium, and an overall metabolic neutrality, in terms of effects on lipid and carbohydrate metabolism. In general, progestins can induce two types of adverse effects: changes in lipid metabolism and bleeding irregularities. Whereas the newer compounds seem to have overcome the first of these adverse effects, the second remains untouched: to this day, proper cycle control can only be achieved with combined hormonal contraceptives.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Contraceptive Agents / chemistry
  • Contraceptive Agents / pharmacokinetics
  • Contraceptive Agents / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Progestins / chemistry
  • Progestins / pharmacokinetics
  • Progestins / pharmacology*


  • Contraceptive Agents
  • Progestins