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High Prolactin Levels in Women: Why They Happen and What Symptoms to Know About

written by: Suzanne Florin • edited by: BStone • updated: 1/14/2011

Pregnancy and breastfeeding are a few of the factors that cause elevated levels of prolactin. Some women do not experience symptoms, but sustained and very high levels can affect the menstrual cycle, fertility and the proper functioning of the optic nerves.

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    Causes

    The pituitary gland contains lactotroph cells that produce a hormone called prolactin, which is primarily responsible for breast development and milk production. Elevation of this hormone occurs periodically, as affected by nutrition, stress, certain drugs, and sexual excitement. High prolactin levels can occur in both men and women, but this condition is more commonly diagnosed in women who are younger than 50 years old. Pregnant women and those who have just given birth experience a normal rise in prolactin. This causes the mammary glands to produce milk necessary for breastfeeding.

    However, a sustained rise in prolactin levels may require treatment. This sustained elevated levels is usually caused by tumors in the pituitary glands. Lactotroph adenomas develop when one of the lactotroph cells mutate, thus causing them to divide and produce prolactin in excess.

    Periodic elevation of prolactin hormone does not usually cause any physical or emotional manifestations. Symptoms of high prolactin levels are experienced when this hormone reach a sustained elevated levels.

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    High Prolactin Levels Symptoms

    Jordie Albiston 1970 For those who are neither pregnant nor breastfeeding, a sustained rise in prolactin levels is called hyperprolactinemia. This can be caused by several factors, such as pituitary tumors, an adverse reaction from oral contraception and some medications (anti-nausea and anti-hypertension), and disorders of the thyroid gland.

    Hyperprolactinemia can lead to reproductive dysfunction and galactorrhea (abnormal secretion of breast milk in non-nursing women). A disruption in the menstrual cycle occurs, leading to irregular periods or loss of menstruation. An abnormally high prolactin levels can also anovulation and hypothyroidism.

    The most common symptoms of high prolactin levels include:

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    Vision Impairment and Headache

    Pituitary tumors can causecompression on the surrounding tissue near the pituitary gland (located at the middle of the head, just below the brain). If this pressure occurs on nerves to the eyes or the optical nerves, vision may become impaired, particularly peripheral or side vision. Headaches are also likely to occur.

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    Galactorrhea

    Although less common in postmenopausal women because of their lack of estrogen, this condition can occur in premenopausal women. High prolactin levels trigger lactation; and women who are not pregnant may experience this condition because of such elevation in prolactin.

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    Hot Flashes and Vaginal Dryness

    High prolactin levels interfere with the normal production of estrogen. A decrease in estrogen can cause premenopausal women to experience menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness. An interference in the function of the ovaries can also cause anovulation (when ovulation is stopped). Infertility can also occur, since high prolactin levels disrupts the production of FSH (Follicle-Stimulating Hormones) and GnRH (Gonadotropic-Releasing Hormone) which are the two key hormones necessary for fertility.

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    Hypothyroidism Symptoms, Such As Fatigue, Low Libido, Weakness

    The production of hormones that stimulate the thyroid gland and adrenal gland is affected because of the pressure in the pituitary gland. This affects an underactivity of the those two glands, thus resulting to symptoms associated to hypothyroidism.

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    Resources

    High Prolactin Levels and Prolactinomas, From

    http://www.uptodate.com/patients/content/topic.do?topicKey=~Q9YjHyBG8MXyPQ

    Elevated Prolactin, From

    http://www.soft-infertility.com/docs/PIProlactin.pdf

    Photo Credits: WikiCommons