If you’ve ever wondered how the pregnant body produces milk, it’s because of a hormone called prolactin. Prolactin is produced by the pituitary gland in your brain and it prepares the breast for milk production in pregnancy. In a non-pregnant adult, the level of this hormone is negligible.
Although the female body produces higher levels of prolactin (less than 25 ng/mL), the male body also produces this hormone (less than 17 ng/mL). In men, the role of prolactin is poorly known but some studies suggest its role in sperm production.
How Do You Know if Your Prolactin Levels are Abnormal?
There are numerous causes of a high level of prolactin in the blood – from impaired thyroid function to the use of certain drugs. One important cause is a tumour in the pituitary gland, which is located in the brain, called prolactinoma. This abnormal growth in the brain can cause a range of symptoms in a person from pressure effects such as headaches and eyesight problems as well as gynaecological problems.
In women with high prolactin levels, sex might be painful and menstrual periods could become irregular. Women with deranged prolactin level could often find it difficult to conceive as well. High levels of this hormone may also produce milk outside of nursing (galactorrhoea).
In men, the most common cause of high prolactin levels is prolactinoma, where the symptoms are mostly related to the pressure effects of the tumour (headaches, visual problems). However, some males may also experience a decrease in sex drive as well as erectile dysfunction.
On the other end of the spectrum, prolactin imbalance can sometimes show no signs or symptoms at all; a screening test might accidentally find an abnormality in the levels of the hormone.
Measuring the Level of Prolactin in Blood - The Prolactin Test
If your doctor suspects an abnormality in the normal prolactin function, a prolactin test may be ordered. This test is a simple blood test that determines the level of prolactin in your blood.
Since the signs and symptoms that come with abnormal levels of prolactin are related to fertility problems, your doctor may also recommend getting other hormones such as FSH and LH measured as well.
Oral contraceptives and drugs used to treat high blood pressure and depression may affect the results of the prolactin test. It’s important to talk to your doctor about your drug history before getting the test done.
What Do My Results Mean?
Very small amounts of this hormone are found in the normal non-pregnant adult. Normally this is lower than 25ng/mL in females and 17ng/mL in males. In pregnant or lactating women, prolactin level can be anywhere from 10 – 209 ng/mL. Lower levels of prolactin usually don’t cause problems and shouldn’t be a cause of stress.
If your prolactin levels come out to be higher than normal there’s no need to panic. Sometimes the level of prolactin spikes after a meal or when you’re under stress.
Clinically significant high levels of prolactin (more than 1000 times the normal range) could point to an underlying disease. It could be a prolactin-secreting tumour in the brain (prolactinoma), hypothyroidism, kidney/liver disease or as a result of medication like anti-depressants.
It’s important to check in with your doctor if you have any symptoms. A complete evaluation and imaging will ultimately help in diagnosing the problem and starting the treatment plan for you.
How Do High Levels of Prolactin Affect Fertility?
The ability to conceive is deeply intertwined with the level of prolactin in the blood. Higher than normal levels of prolactin make it difficult for the ovaries to secrete the primary female hormone, oestrogen. This ultimately results in periods becoming irregular and fertility problems to arise.
In a man, a raised level of this hormone can cause impotence as well as decreased libido.
What are the Treatment Options?
Large prolactinomas are usually surgically removed. This instantly alleviates all symptoms and reverts the prolactin levels back to their normal.
Your doctor may also prescribe you prolactin-lowering medicines like dopamine agonists.
All medical treatment aside, people with high prolactin levels benefit impressively from lifestyle changes. This includes shifting to a healthier diet, proper stress management and taking vitamin E and B6 supplements.
Take Home Message
Prolactin has a vital role in the body but too much of this hormone can cause problems. If you or a loved one have been experiencing symptoms of infertility and tumour pressure effects, it’s important to visit your doctor at the earliest and get a prolactin blood test.
Although this hormone imbalance cannot cause life-threatening problems, it can affect your normal activities. The good news is that there are excellent treatment options now available that can completely reverse the symptoms and bring the level of prolactin back to normal.