Prostaglandins are compounds in the body made of fats that have hormone-like effects. They’re interesting because they can have different effects depending on the receptors where they attach.
Some known effects include uterine cramping and increased sensitivity to pain.
Researchers have even created artificial prostaglandins for use in medication to induce labor. Keep reading to find out more about prostaglandins and the ways they may affect your body.
Prostaglandins are unique compounds because they have hormone-like effects. That is, they influence reactions in the body when they’re present in certain tissues.
Unlike hormones, they aren’t released from a specific gland. Instead, the body has a number of tissues that can make prostaglandins.
Another interesting aspect of prostaglandins is that different ones have different effects. Many times, these effects are exact opposites. Examples include:
- constriction or dilation of blood vessels
- forming platelets into a cluster or breaking them up
- opening or closing up airways
- contracting or relaxing smooth muscle in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract
- causing uterine contractions in pregnancy and when not pregnant
As you can see, prostaglandins play a variety of roles in the body. Doctors are still figuring out all the ways prostaglandins may affect you.
Prostaglandins have significant effects, but they also have limitations. They usually have a short half-life, so they don’t last long in the body. For this reason, they can only affect cells that are close by. That’s why they’re present throughout the body to exert the following effects.
Prostaglandin receptors are present in the uterus whether you’re pregnant or not. Doctors think that prostaglandins may be responsible for uterine cramping that can cause painful periods.
Taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, blocks prostaglandins and may help reduce menstrual pain.
In late pregnancy, a woman starts to have a larger number of certain types of prostaglandins in her uterine tissue. These include PGE2 and PGE2a. Doctors believe these types are responsible for creating uterine contractions.
Contractions are part of what can help move a baby down the birth canal in preparation for labor. Doctors may also prescribe prostaglandin medications that attach to prostaglandin receptors in the uterus to induce labor.
Doctors may prescribe prostaglandin medications to stimulate uterine contractions. This effect can cause abortion, or the termination of a pregnancy. Doctors may prescribe the medication misoprostol for a first trimester abortion, sometimes in combination with other medications.
Doctors also may prescribe misoprostol in the event of a miscarriage. The medication can help the uterus release the products of conception. This can reduce complications after miscarriage and promote the chance to conceive again.
Prostaglandins can have healing effects, especially in the stomach. They decrease stomach acid production while also stimulating the release of protective mucus in the GI tract.
In addition, prostaglandins also influence blood clotting to prevent bleeding. They also help dissolve clots when a person is healing.
Prostaglandins can play a role in decreasing intraocular pressure. For this reason, doctors may prescribe eye drops that help reduce eye pressure. This effect can help treat conditions like glaucoma.
Inflammation and pain
Prostaglandins can promote pain reduction, yet they can also cause it. NSAIDs, such as naproxen (Aleve), block the creation of prostaglandins.
Doctors have found there are high concentrations of prostaglandins present in areas of inflammation. They know prostaglandins can have a variety of inflammatory effects, including causing vasodilation, promoting fevers, and recruiting cells involved in allergic reactions.
Doctors have also identified the prostaglandin type PGE2 as causing redness, swelling, and pain.
While inflammation isn’t always fun, it isn’t always bad either. Inflammation is one of the earlier steps to healing. Prolonged inflammation becomes problematic when it’s linked with chronic pain and illness.
Too many or too few prostaglandins in the body can cause health complications. Known problems with too many prostaglandins include arthritis and menstrual cramping. Conditions that can result from too few prostaglandins include glaucoma and stomach ulcers.
Doctors also use prostaglandins to treat heart conditions at birth, such as a patent ductus arteriosus.
Pharmaceutical companies manufacture a number of medications that affect prostaglandins in the body. These are as varied as the actions of prostaglandins themselves and include:
- Bimatoprost (Lumigan, Latisse). This is a medication used to treat glaucoma as well as to promote eyelash growth.
- Carboprost (Hemabate). This medication produces uterine contractions that may help reduce postpartum bleeding.
- Dinoprostone (Cervidil). This medication is used to promote labor by dilating a woman’s cervix.
- Misoprostol (Cytotec). This has a variety of uses, including to prevent gastric ulcers, to induce labor, and also to induce abortion. Doctors may also prescribe it to reduce postpartum bleeding.
- Latanoprost (Xalatan). This is an eye drop prescribed to treat glaucoma.
Medications like NSAIDs also help to reduce the discomforts and inflammation caused by prostaglandins.
Dysmenorrhea, or painful periods, is one of the most common prostaglandin-related disorders that may cause you to see a doctor. Usually, prostaglandin-related menstrual pain is worse when the period first starts and gets better with age.
Talk to your doctor if you have painful periods that don’t get better when you take NSAIDs. Sometimes, painful periods aren’t related to prostaglandins alone, but instead to an underlying medical condition, such as endometriosis or uterine fibroids.
Prostaglandins are medically important compounds that can cause pain and relieve it. Doctors have figured out ways to use them to support labor and reduce postpartum bleeding risks.
When it comes to painful periods, NSAIDs can help block some unwanted prostaglandin effects. If these don’t help manage your chronic pain, talk to your doctor about other treatment options or potential underlying causes.