Prolactin is one of the less talked about hormones, but it's critical for both men and women. Prolactin is produced by the pituitary gland and helps with sexual function, fertility, and lactation.
While prolactin levels can fluctuate, they should generally be lower in women who are not pregnant or breastfeeding. Elevated prolactin levels can cause several issues, including problems with fertility and the menstrual cycle.
In this article, I'll share:
- What prolactin does in your body
- What's an average prolactin level versus too high
- What can cause elevated prolactin levels when you aren't breastfeeding
- Natural ways to lower prolactin when the cause is not related to a more serious medical condition
What Is Prolactin and What Is a Normal Prolactin Level?
Prolactin is a hormone released by the pituitary gland in your brain (although the uterus, breasts, and immune cells also produce it). It's best known for promoting milk production in pregnant and nursing mothers.
However, prolactin also has other important roles in your body, and both women and men make it. It helps to regulate immune system function, plays a role in the stress response, and helps to control the production of other hormones.
Additionally, prolactin levels have been linked with fertility concerns related to menstrual cycles.
Levels of prolactin are partly regulated by hormones like dopamine, which helps you feel happy and motivated. When dopamine activity is low, prolactin levels can increase.
Usually, your prolactin levels rise while you're pregnant and help you produce milk after delivery. Prolactin then drops when lactation is no longer needed.
Normal prolactin levels for women or people with menstrual cycles who aren't pregnant are typically less than 25 ng/mL. If it's greater than that, and especially if prolactin levels are consistently high, it can indicate a problem.
Higher than normal prolactin levels (called hyperprolactinemia) are relatively common and can be caused by several factors (as you'll learn about below).
High Prolactin Level Symptoms
Symptoms of high prolactin levels may include:
- Irregular or missing periods (amenorrhea)
- Anovulation (when no egg is released)
- Galactorrhea (where the breasts produce milk without a pregnancy) or nipple discharge
- PMS, especially mood-related symptoms
- Tender breasts
- Vaginal dryness
- Hot flashes
- Hirsutism (excess hair growth on the face, chest, or back)
But it's also possible to have high prolactin without any symptoms, especially if you've already gone through menopause.
Prolactin and The Menstrual Cycle
High prolactin can disrupt the normal secretion of estrogen, which explains the issues with menstrual cycles.
Estrogen is a critical regulator of the menstrual cycle. If it remains low because of high prolactin, low estrogen can lead to amenorrhea and anovulation.
Drops in estrogen from high prolactin also explain why some of the symptoms mimic those experienced in menopause, like hot flashes, night sweats, and vaginal dryness.
What Causes Elevated Prolactin Levels?
Elevated prolactin levels can have many different causes. Since the most common reason for high prolactin is pregnancy or breastfeeding, if you're not pregnant or nursing, it's time to dig deeper.
- PCOS is often discussed with hyperprolactinemia. PCOS can cause amenorrhea, anovulation, and fertility issues, so the two can be confused with each other. It's unclear if PCOS is the cause or effect of high prolactin, but the two conditions are often treated together.
- Certain medications that you take can raise prolactin levels. If you take antipsychotic medicines, some antidepressants, certain heartburn medications, and high blood pressure medication, you may see higher prolactin levels.
- Diet can also play a role as certain vitamin deficiencies and under-eating, as seen with anorexia nervosa, can cause high prolactin. Undereating can also increase stress hormone levels which can lead to an increase in prolactin.
- Your thyroid can also cause elevated prolactin levels. About 40 percent of people with hypothyroid, or underactive thyroid, have at least mildly elevated prolactin, according to some research. This is, in part, why thyroid disease is linked to infertility.
- Stress, over-exercise, and poor sleep habits can contribute to high prolactin levels. This is related to an increase in stress hormones, as I mentioned above.
If you and your healthcare provider are concerned, you can test for elevated prolactin levels with a simple blood test.
Pituitary Gland Function and Prolactinoma
Even though there are many reasons for high prolactin, the most common cause is a benign tumor on the pituitary gland called a prolactinoma.
Prolactinomas are benign, which means they're not cancerous. However, they can still cause problems because they secrete high prolactin levels, causing the symptoms mentioned above.
Prolactinomas can occasionally grow large enough to press on nearby structures like the optic nerve, which can cause vision problems or headaches.
If the cause of elevated prolactin is due to a prolactinoma, medication usually effectively lowers prolactin levels and shrinks the tumor. The most common medication is dopamine agonists (which help produce more dopamine). These drugs act on dopamine receptors and stop prolactin release from the pituitary gland.
Sometimes the medication doesn't work, so surgery is necessary to remove the prolactinoma.
@drjolenebrighten Reply to @mirriekoen Prolactin should be tested with missing period. #period #periodproblems #amenorrhea #prolactinoma #drjolenebrighten ♬ original sound – Dr. Jolene Brighten
Natural Ways to Reduce Prolactin Levels
Aside from a prolactinoma, if your prolactin levels are high, there are natural ways to support healthy levels.
Manage Stress Levels
Stress can lead to an increase in prolactin levels. Chronically elevated cortisol can wreck your hormones, not just prolactin but also thyroid, sex hormones, and blood sugar.
To manage stress, you can try yoga, meditation, spending time in nature, or any activity that relaxes you. You can also try supplements like magnesium, omega-3s, and adaptogenic herbs like Ashwagandha or Rhodiola Rosea.
Nourish Your Thyroid
As I mentioned, hypothyroidism can raise prolactin levels. To nourish your thyroid, ensure you're getting enough iodine in your diet. Seafood and seaweed are sources of iodine.
Also, make sure you're getting enough selenium which is essential for thyroid function. Brazil nuts (depending on soil quality it was grown in), seafood, and meats are all good sources of selenium.
Additionally, make sure you're getting enough zinc as it's essential for thyroid hormone production. Good sources of zinc include oysters, beef, pumpkin seeds, and chickpeas.
I created my Thyroid Support Kit to provide all the nutrients needed to nourish your thyroid.
Try Vitex (Chasteberry)
Vitex, also known as chasteberry, is a fruit used for centuries to support hormone balance. Vitex can help lower prolactin levels by normalizing prolactin secretion from the pituitary gland. It can also bind to dopamine receptors to lower prolactin.
I use vitex for many of my clients with hormone imbalances, and it's one of my favorite supplements. You can read more about vitex here.
Get Enough Sleep
I know, I know, everyone says you need to get enough sleep. But there's a good reason. When you don't get enough sleep, it leads to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol. As I mentioned, chronically elevated cortisol can wreak havoc on your hormones and health.
To get enough sleep, aim for 7-9 hours per night. Also, create a nighttime routine to wind down before bed and avoid screens for at least 30 minutes before sleep.
Drink Less Alcohol (Especially Beer)
Have you ever heard the midwife's advice to drink beer to increase milk production? It's actually true. Beer contains barley which can naturally stimulate prolactin production.
For people with normal prolactin levels, beer isn't necessarily a problem. But if you have higher levels, it's best to avoid beer or at least limit your consumption.
Eat Zinc-Rich Foods
Zinc deficiency could lead to elevated prolactin levels, according to animal studies. It's also worth noting that a study on older men showed that zinc supplementation helped lower prolactin levels (although we need to see this in a study on women for confirmation).
Good sources of zinc include oysters, beef, pumpkin seeds, and chickpeas.
Try Vitamin B6
A study on patients with high prolactin from medication found that vitamin B6 helped lower prolactin levels. Vitamin B6 is essential for many functions in the body, including hormone balance. It also plays a role in dopamine production, which means it can help lower prolactin levels.
You can get vitamin B6 from food or supplements. Good sources of vitamin B6 include poultry, fish, potatoes, bananas, and beans.
Vitamin B6 is also available in supplement form. I recommend using a supplement containing vitamin B6 and magnesium as they work together to support hormone balance.
Final Thoughts on Elevated Prolactin Levels
Elevated prolactin levels can be caused by stress, hypothyroidism, pregnancy, and breastfeeding. The most common cause of high prolactin levels is a benign tumor on the pituitary gland called a prolactinoma.
If you have elevated prolactin levels, there are things you can do to support your body. Supplements like vitex, magnesium, vitamin B6, and zinc can all help lower prolactin levels. You can also try lifestyle changes like getting enough sleep, managing stress, and reducing alcohol consumption.
If you have any of the above symptoms or concerns about your prolactin levels, make sure to have a conversation with your healthcare provider.
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