Ever heard of the ‘milk hormone’? It’s the one that helps new mamas provide milk to nurture their babies. That’s prolactin! Actually, to be more specific, luteotropic hormone (medically abbreviated to LTH). If you haven’t heard of this hormone before, not to worry, this is why we’re here! Keep reading to find out what prolactin is and why you should care about it!
What is prolactin?
It’s about to get a little medical so bear with me. Prolactin is a protein hormone that is responsible for sending the signal to produce and secrete milk through the mammary glands. It’s called prolactin due to its direct effect on lactation. It is produced in the part of the brain called the pituitary gland. This is a small pea-sized gland situated at the base of the brain. Despite its size, it is one of the most important components to maintaining our health. The pituitary gland is a core part of our endocrine system and essentially regulates our hormones! Our mood, skin, general health and even height can be influenced by the functioning of the pituitary gland.
(Here is a helpful link if you want to learn more about this).
Prolactin has also been found to affect oestrogen and testosterone, so you can see how this is becoming more and more important for us to know about!
Prolactin levels: Hyperprolactinemia and Prolactinomas
Now, prolactin levels, just like any other hormone, can be too high. And when there is this type of imbalance, it can have negative effects on our health. High levels of prolactin are completely normal after just giving birth or during nursing. But what if prolactin is a little higher than we’d like but we’re not in that category? When these prolactin levels are higher than normal, you may have a condition called hyperprolactinemia.
This is when the body is producing prolactin even when there is no need for the body to produce milk. While highly treatable, hyperprolactinemia can sometimes cause issues with sex drive. It can cause vaginal dryness and even issues with fertility. Higher prolactin levels can be caused by a benign (non-cancerous) tumour on the pituitary gland. This is also known as a pituitary tumour or prolactinoma. A prolactinoma can sometimes cause the following symptoms in women:
- Headaches that seem to come often and out of nowhere
- Visual impairments
- Lactation (also known as galactorrhea)
- Painful sex
- Abnormal acne
- Abnormal growth of hair on your face and body
If you feel like you may be experiencing these symptoms, you can ask for a prolactin level test to be performed. This is one through drawing blood, just like in a blood test. Another way of diagnosing a prolactinoma is by MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) which is non-invasive and can create detailed images.
How does medication play a role?
Remember when we talked about antidepressants? There are some cases where if you are taking antidepressants, but they don’t seem to be doing the trick, you may be prescribed an added medication by your doctor to help with unpleasant symptoms (this is also known as polypharmacy — more information on that to come soon!) Some medications such as antipsychotics can impact the inner hormonal balance. The danger here is that sometimes, this imbalance can trigger higher prolactin levels. Other medications that can increase our prolactin are those used to target high blood pressure, heartburn, pain, menopausal symptoms and even birth control pills!
If the higher prolactin levels are attributed to a prolactinoma (the pituitary tumour we talked about before), there are some medications that can be prescribed. These can be used as a treatment to make the tumour smaller and stop the symptoms. Your doctor will work with you to come up with a treatment plan, and likely order blood tests to make sure that everything is progressing well.
Always speak to a doctor before starting, changing, or stopping any type of medication.
Prolactin is one of many important hormones that circulate our bloodstream to ensure our bodies are functioning properly. Just like other hormones, when they get a little higher than normal, they can sometimes cause unpleasant symptoms. The reason for this may be due to medication you’re on, a stressful period, general hormonal imbalances, or a benign pituitary tumour. Either way, the best course of action is to speak with your doctor or GP and work together to try and find a solution.
By now you have probably guessed that all of these different systems are all very tightly connected. If you feel something is off, book an appointment with your doctor or GP. Luckily, medical advancements have gotten to a place where sometimes just a blood test is enough to get to the bottom of something.
Other useful resources:
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