Pregnancy is characterized by various hormones that facilitate fetal development and prepare the body for childbirth and breastfeeding, one of which being the hormone prolactin. In this blog post, we will explore what prolactin is, its essential functions, and the discomforts it may cause during pregnancy.
What is prolactin?
Prolactin is a peptide hormone produced by the anterior pituitary gland, a small structure located at the base of the brain. Initially recognized for its role in stimulating lactation after childbirth, prolactin is present in both men and non-pregnant women at low levels. However, during pregnancy, its production increases significantly under the influence of other hormones like estrogen and progesterone.
What does prolactin do during pregnancy?
- Lactation and Breast Development: Prolactin’s primary function during pregnancy is to prepare the breasts for lactation. It promotes breast development, increasing the number of mammary glands and ducts. As the due date approaches, prolactin levels continue to rise, ensuring that the breasts are ready to produce milk once the baby is born.
- Suppression of Menstruation: Prolactin has an inhibitory effect on the menstrual cycle during pregnancy. High levels of prolactin prevent the release of eggs from the ovaries (ovulation), helping to maintain a stable environment for the growing baby.
- Immune System Regulation: Studies suggest that prolactin plays a role in modulating the immune system during pregnancy. It helps to establish immunological tolerance between the pregnant person and the developing baby, reducing the risk of fetal rejection and protecting against certain infections.
Discomforts caused by prolactin during pregnancy
While prolactin serves essential functions during pregnancy, it can also lead to some discomforts for those who are pregnant. Let’s explore a few of them:
- Breast Tenderness: As prolactin levels rise and breast development occurs, many pregnant people experience breast tenderness and swelling. This discomfort is akin to the breast tenderness some may experience before their menstrual periods, but during pregnancy, it tends to be more pronounced.
- Morning Sickness: Nausea and vomiting, commonly known as morning sickness, affect a significant number of pregnant people during the first trimester. Prolactin, along with other hormones, is believed to contribute to this condition. While the exact mechanisms are not fully understood, hormonal fluctuations are thought to play a role in triggering these symptoms.
- Mood Swings: Pregnancy hormones such as prolactin can affect a person’s emotional well-being, leading to mood swings and emotional sensitivity. Prolactin’s impact on neurotransmitters in the brain may contribute to these emotional fluctuations.
- Gestational Diabetes: Some studies have suggested a potential link between elevated prolactin levels and the development of gestational diabetes. However, more research is needed to establish a definitive connection.
As with any hormonal changes during pregnancy, it’s essential for those who are pregnant to communicate openly with their trusted loved ones and healthcare providers about any discomforts or concerns they experience. Understanding the impact of prolactin on the body can help those who are pregnant navigate the various changes they undergo during this remarkable phase of life.