Prolactin (or PRL) isn’t a term you’d necessarily come across in casual conversations, but it’s actually super important when you’re talking and thinking about fertility. If you’ve never heard of prolactin, don’t fret! Read on to know more.
What is prolactin?
Prolactin also known as PRL or Lactogenic hormone is a hormone produced by the pituitary gland, located just below the brain. It basically tells the body to produce breast milk when a woman is pregnant or breastfeeding. Prolactin is important for male reproductive health as well, it has got a role in testosterone secretion, which leads to sperm formation.
For females who have just delivered a baby, a rise in prolactin naturally results in milk production. Breastfeeding or pumping breast milk sends a signal to the brain to stimulate prolactin. The prolactin hormone helps milk glands in the breasts know when to produce milk.
Prolactin levels may need to be tested too
Certain conditions can warrant the need to measure how much of the Prolactin hormone is there in the blood. Changes in prolactin levels can happen in physiological conditions too. For example, when women are pregnant or have just given birth, they will have higher levels of prolactin making it easier for them to make breast milk. A Prolactin test can also sometimes reveal other issues caused by this hormone.
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Symptoms that can give clues about sufficient Prolactin levels may include:
– Pain and uneasiness during sex
– Unusual body and facial hair growth
– Lactation outside pregnancy or childbirth, what is known as galactorrhea
– Irregular or no periods
– Suffering from prolactinoma, i.e. having symptoms of a growth on the pituitary gland
– Reduced sex drive or other fertility problems
– Difficulty in getting an erection
– Suffering from prolactinoma
Sometimes there are common symptoms such as constant and unexplained headaches, or vision problems etc. in both men and women, which can also be taken as signs when a doctor might have a person tested for Prolactin levels. The test is a blood test done, since the level of the hormone keeps changing throughout the day, with it being the highest in the morning, doctors suggest, to go for a test approximately 3-4 hours after a person has woken up.
How to interpret the test results?
Normally, the range of Prolactin in the blood should be around 2-18 ng/mL in males, 2-29 ng/mL in females who are not pregnant or have given birth and around 10-209 ng/mL for pregnant females.
Low to normal levels need not be tested and are not usually a cause of worry for both men and women. Low levels would mean that the pituitary gland is not functioning at its best, a condition known as hypopituitarism. Even if the level is somewhat outside or below the range, is not a cause of concern, as that could be due to certain medications, stress or having eaten something before the blood test is carried out. The Prolactin levels can also be high, which usually is the cause after pregnancy or during breast feeding mothers, to very high, of what is also known as hyperprolactinemia. High levels of Prolactin can also be due to pituitary tumor, for which a person might have to undergo MRI, surgery or can also be treated on certain medications. Medications such as some psychiatric drugs, drugs used to treat acid reflux or nausea for cancer or common stressors like low blood sugar, rigorous exercising, or physical activities, can also be the reason for high Prolactin levels.
Prolactin levels and their effects on fertility
If the prolactinoma tumors put pressure on the pituitary gland, this might lead to stoppage of estrogens or progesterone hormone production, leading to infertility, which is rare and farfetched. Low prolactin levels can tamper with periods, stop periods completely, reduce sex drive or cause vaginal dryness. If men on the other hand, have high levels of Prolactin, this might lead to erectile dysfunction and also low sex drive, sometimes loss of body hair is also a symptom.
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Get the right treatment for high levels of Prolactin
Seizures, lung cancer, stress due to prolonged illness, or trauma, can also be the reason behind high prolactin levels. Doctors would probably put the person on medication to treat high levels of Prolactin. If a person has prolactinoma, medication can help reduce the size of the tumor, if not; surgery is the solution to remove these tumors.
A few simpler ways as advised by your doctor to reduce high levels of Prolactin may include:
- Dietary changes
- Stopping rigorous workouts that burn you
- Avoiding wearing clothes that over stimulate your nipples
- Taking vitamin supplements (such as Vitamin B-6 or Vitamin E)
To sum up, an endocrinologist can help with the right treatment needed based on the past history, ongoing medications etc, and will also guide on the dietary and lifestyle changes to be followed post treatment or surgery. There is also a condition known as idiopathic hyperprolactinemia, where there might be no specific or underlying cause for the high levels, and this goes away without much medical help or interference. It is to be noted that both Prolactinoma and Hyperprolactinemia are not life threatening, they might cause after or side effects post medication or surgery, but they gradually go away.