If you are having trouble getting pregnant, it may have something to do with your hormones. Hormones are special chemicals secreted by the glands in your body; they work on specific body parts in order to ensure proper functioning. Ovulation and menstruation are both triggered by hormone secretion. As a result, infertility is often caused by an imbalance in these hormones. Specifically, the hormone prolactin plays a large role in preventing some women from becoming pregnant.
What is Prolactin?
Prolactin is a chemical that is secreted by your pituitary gland. This is the pea-sized gland found in the middle of your brain, which is responsible for triggering many of your body's processes. Prolactin is found in both men and women and is released at various times throughout the day and night. Prolactin is generally released in order to stimulate milk production in pregnant women. It also enlarges a woman's mammary glands in order to allow her to prepare for breastfeeding.
Hormones that Affect Prolactin
Like many of your body's other processes, the release of prolactin is actually triggered by other hormones. Hormones affecting prolactin include:
- thyroid-producing hormone
Serotonin and thyroid hormone help to increase prolactin release, whereas dopamine works to block prolactin release.
Prolactin Changes During Pregnancy
When you are pregnant, prolactin changes are completely normal. In fact, your prolactin must increase in order to encourage the production of milk in your mammary glands. During pregnancy your hormones are all over the place. In particular, your estrogen levels begin to rise, and this is what stimulates the increase in your prolactin levels. After birth, as your baby breastfeeds, nipple stimulation will trigger a further increase in prolactin. Prolactin is what allows you to continue breastfeeding for an extended period of time.
Prolactin and Infertility
Prolactin doesn't just cause your body to increase milk production - it also affects your ovulation and menstrual cycles. This is why it is nearly impossible to become pregnant when you are breastfeeding. (In fact, prolactin is 90% effective against pregnancy in the first months after birth).
Prolactin inhibits two hormones necessary to your ovulation: follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH). Both of these hormones are responsible for helping your eggs to develop and mature in the ovaries, so that they can be released during ovulation. When you have excess prolactin in your bloodstream, ovulation is not triggered, and you will be unable to become pregnant. Prolactin may also affect your menstrual cycle and the regularity of your periods.
If you are having difficulties becoming pregnant, it may be due to an irregularity in your prolactin levels. If your have elevated prolactin, this can inhibit ovulation and menstruation. Prolactin levels can be determined through a simple blood test. Normal prolactin levels in women are somewhere between 30 and 600 mIU/I. If your levels measure towards the high end of this spectrum or above, you may be suffering from a prolactin irregularity.
Types of Irregularities
There are two main types of prolactin irregularities. It is possible to suffer from both at one time.
Galactorrhea is a condition in which you begin to produce milk spontaneouly, without being pregnant or having given birth recently. It is a result of high prolactic levels. Other symptoms include:
- enlarged breasts
- painful or tender breasts
- irregular menstruation
- loss of sex drive
Hyperprolactinemia literally means too much prolactin in the blood. If you have hyperprolactinemia, you may also have galactorrhea, though this is not always the case. Symptoms of high prolactin levels include:
- prolactin levels at or above 600 mIU/I
- irregular menstruation
- reduced sex drive
- vision problems
Causes of High Prolactin Levels
There are a few things that may be responsible for your prolactin irregularities. In order to treat your infertility, you will need to determine what is at the bottom of your elevated prolactin levels.
Prolactinoma is one of the more common causes of prolactin-induced infertility. Prolactinoma causes a tumor to grow on your pituitary gland. This tumor secretes excess prolactin into your body. About 10% of the population have these tumors. They usually do not pose any health risks, besides infertility, though sometimes they can interfere with vision.
Prescription drugs can cause excess secretion of prolactin. Some anti-depressants, painkillers, and opiates block dopamine, preventing prolactin secretion from being inhibited. This can cause your prolactin levels to rise.
Other more rare causes of prolactin irregularities include:
- thyroid disease
- polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
For help with female fertility, find out more about FertilAid for Women.