What's Prolactin, and What Does It Have to Do with Sex?

Made in the pituitary gland of the brain, prolactin is known as the lactation or breastfeeding hormone. Prolactin levels are elevated after birth, and this prevents pregnancy right after having a baby, by inhibiting or reducing the production of normal sex hormones.

In a non-breastfeeding person, prolactin levels should not be elevated. However, I see it functionally high often in those who have never even been pregnant. The reduction in hormones from high prolactin can be a big root-cause to low libido. So here is what I gather to be the main causes of high prolactin levels, based on my experience:

1. Sustained, chronic stress

Many of us think of stress as interpersonal or actions-based, like having a difficult boss or struggling to juggle work and home life. However, we often forget that the basic foundational things— like denying your body of nutrients and neglecting time for rest— also contribute to stress. Here are three self-care tips to manage stress when you need to step back and take a break.

2. Low levels of Vitamin B6

By this point, you know that nutrition is such a huge part of hormonal balance. Read here for a list of nutrient-dense foods that your hormones need. Because if your body hasn’t had its most basic nutrients taken care of, creating the hormones needed for sexual desire is low priority.

3. Hormonal birth control

Hormonal birth control provides the body with synthetic hormones and can disrupt natural hormone production. Read more here.

4. Low thyroid function

5. Excessive cannabis use

6. Low levels of dopamine

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in our brains that is often associated with pleasure, reward, and addictive behavior. It’s understandable that without it, one may not be able to enjoy sex— much less come back consistently for more of it.

It’s important to note: if prolactin is really high, it’s possible that you may have a prolactinoma present, which is a benign growth in the pituitary gland. It’s no cause for alarm however, as most people instead have mildly or functionally elevated prolactin, which is what I see almost 99% of the time in my practice.

Low libido is not uncommon, and nothing to be ashamed of. It also involves a myriad of factors. Read more about other causes for low sex drive.

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This is an excerpt from a post written by Dr. Leah Gordon, ND, a naturopathic and functional medicine doctor based in San Diego, CA. Founder of Tribe Medicine and Womanhood Wellness. She loves teaching and empowering others to live healthier lives for themselves, their children, and their communities.
Abridged content curated and edited by Jean Lin. Expanded to include a trigger warning, as well as additional language and context to be gender-inclusive.

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