Have you been advised to have a prolactin test? Or just want to find out more about prolactin and what it does? We have all the information you need.
Many people won’t hear about prolactin until they’re pregnant or trying to conceive.
But this seldom discussed hormone has a range of important functions.
So what does it do, and why do your prolactin levels matter?
Let’s dive in.
In this article: 📝
- What is prolactin?
- What does prolactin do in females?
- What are normal prolactin levels?
- What happens when prolactin is too high?
- What are the symptoms of high prolactin?
- Does prolactin cause weight gain?
- Can I get pregnant with high prolactin?
- What’s the cause of high prolactin?
- What treatments are there for high prolactin levels?
- How can I balance my prolactin naturally?
- What foods are high in prolactin?
- What vitamins reduce prolactin?
- The bottom line on prolactin
What is prolactin?
Prolactin is a hormone that’s produced in the pituitary gland, as well as in several other locations around the body.
One of its main roles is promoting breastmilk production, also known as lactation.
That’s how it gets its name (sometimes abbreviated to PRL).
You may also hear it referred to as luteotropic hormone, or LTH, or sometimes just as the “milk hormone”.
What does prolactin do in females?
The prolactin hormone plays a part in at least 300 functions around the body.
- Reproductive functions — including developing mammary glands and promoting milk production. (If your boobs are leaking during pregnancy, prolactin is the culprit.)
- Metabolism (the chemical changes in cells that keep them healthy and growing)
- Your immune system
- Fluid levels
- Behavioral functions like coping with stress. (Changing levels are linked to post-partum anxiety.)
What are normal prolactin levels?
Prolactin levels in women who aren’t pregnant, and in men, are usually low.
A prolactin blood test will determine the level in your blood.
Laboratories vary slightly in what they consider “normal”.
And levels vary throughout the day.
(They’re usually high in the morning, so that’s a good time for breastfeeding mothers to pump.)
That said, typical ranges are:
- Less than 20 nanograms per milliliter for men.
- Less than 25 nanograms per milliliter for women who aren’t pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Between 80 and 400 nanograms per milliliter for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
What happens when prolactin is too high?
Having too much prolactin in your blood is known as hyperprolactinemia.
The symptoms can differ for younger women and those who’ve gone through menopause.
Men can have hyperprolactinemia too, and their symptoms may be different.
What are the symptoms of high prolactin?
For women, symptoms can include:
- Your breasts leaking milk when you’re not pregnant or breastfeeding
- A milky discharge from your nipples (known as “galactorrhea”)
- Tender breasts
- Vaginal dryness
- Difficulties conceiving
- Irregular periods, or periods that stop before the age of 40
- Unexplained headaches
- Problems with your vision
For women who’ve already gone through menopause, symptoms may not appear until the condition gets worse.
This can lead to hypothyroidism, aka an “underactive thyroid.”
This is when your body doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone.
It can lead to symptoms like:
- Weight gain
- Pain in your muscles
- Finding it difficult to cope with cold temperatures
For men, too much prolactin can lead to their chests developing fatty tissue, nipple discharge, low sex drive, erectile dysfunction, and loss of body hair.
And like women, they may experience headaches and vision problems.
Does prolactin cause weight gain?
Research suggests high levels of prolactin can lead to weight gain.
Lots of people with hyperprolactinemia are also overweight.
And in one 1998 study, treating the condition led to weight loss in 70 percent of patients.
Can I get pregnant with high prolactin?
High prolactin levels can make it more difficult to get pregnant.
There are a couple of reasons for this.
High prolactin levels can interfere with ovulation.
That’s the process of eggs being released by the ovaries.
Irregular periods make it harder to time sex according to when an egg is available for fertilization.
And sometimes high prolactin can stop ovulation altogether.
High prolactin levels can reduce progesterone levels.
And progesterone is needed to thicken the walls of the uterus, preparing it for implantation.
What’s the cause of high prolactin?
There can be a number of different causes of high prolactin levels.
- Prolactinoma, a benign (i.e., non-cancerous) tumor in the pituitary gland and the most common cause.
- Hypothyroidism when your body isn’t producing enough of the thyroid hormone.
- A problem with the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls the pituitary gland.
- Other conditions, like polycystic ovarian syndrome and liver or kidney disease, which make it harder for the body to release prolactin.
- Injury or irritation to your chest, caused by anything from shingles to a bra that’s too tight.
- Taking certain drugs, including painkillers containing opiods, and some drugs for high blood pressure, depression, psychosis, or nausea.
What treatments are there for high prolactin levels?
Not everyone with high prolactin levels will need treatment.
It will depend on how high your levels are and how they’re affecting you.
If you’ve had a blood test that reveals your prolactin is high, your doctor may suggest an MRI scan.
That will show whether there’s a mass (a prolactinoma) in your pituitary gland.
In rare cases, surgery may be needed for larger tumors.
But for most people, drugs that mimic dopamine — the “feel good hormone” — are highly effective at shrinking prolactinomas.
The most commonly used drug is something called cabergoline.
If you’re taking other medicines that increase your prolactin levels, don’t just stop taking them.
Talk through your options with your doctor.
How can I balance my prolactin naturally?
The evidence for a natural approach to reducing prolactin isn’t strong.
But there are some things you could try.
Keeping your stress levels in check can help.
And steering clear of clothing that constricts your chest will remove at least one potential cause of high prolactin levels.
Dopamine is known to inhibit the production of prolactin.
Various approaches are recommended to boost dopamine — everything from sitting in the sun, to listening to music.
Healthy eating may also help.
What foods are high in prolactin?
Asparagus, apricots, and dates are high in a substance called tryptophan, which stimulates the production of prolactin.
New mothers wanting to know how to increase prolactin are often pointed toward these foods.
What vitamins reduce prolactin?
There’s some limited evidence that vitamins B6 and E may reduce prolactin levels.
One study from 2021 looked at vitamin B6 as a treatment for men who’d developed hyperprolactinemia as a result of antipsychotic medication.
One hundred men received the treatment.
High doses of vitamin B6 successfully reduced prolactin levels in their blood by an average of 68%.
And a 1992 study of patients undergoing dialysis found vitamin E significantly reduced prolactin levels.
The sample size here, though, was only twelve people.
The bottom line on prolactin
Too much prolactin can be a problem if you’re trying to conceive.
A simple blood test can check your prolactin levels, and an MRI may be needed to determine the root cause.
There is a range of things you can try to reduce your prolactin levels naturally, though the evidence here is limited.
But there are highly effective medical treatments too.
The right approach will depend on your specific circumstances, so talk to your doctor about your options.
All the best!