Prostaglandins are hormone-like substances. Different tissues in the body can release prostaglandins, including the skin, stomach, and lungs. Having an appropriate amount of this substance is essential to regulating many bodily functions.

There are different types of prostaglandins, and each has a specific function. For example, some prostaglandins can cause inflammation, while others suppress it. Similarly, some prostaglandins promote blood clotting, while others promote bleeding.

Although prostaglandins are essential for many bodily functions, they can also cause issues. Too much inflammation can damage tissues and organs, while excessive blood clotting can lead to severe health problems such as stroke or heart attack. Additionally, prostaglandins may contribute to debilitating pain that can interfere with a person’s daily activities.

Read on to learn more about prostaglandins, what they are, and how they can affect the body.

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Prostaglandins are hormone-like substances that the body produces in response to injury or illness. They are part of the inflammatory response, which is the body’s natural mechanism for healing.

Prostaglandins consist of fatty acids and are present in all tissues of the body, including the skin, stomach, and lungs.

There are several types of prostaglandin, including:

  • prostaglandin D2
  • prostaglandin E2
  • prostaglandin F2
  • thromboxane
  • prostacyclin

Prostaglandins have hormone-like effects in the body, but, unlike hormones, a specific gland does not release them. Rather, the body has numerous tissues that can make prostaglandins.

Prostaglandins only perform actions in the local area where the body produces them. This is essential to help regulate and limit the effect they can have on the body.

Prostaglandins have different functions — and possibly opposite effects — in different tissues. Generally, they may play a role in:

  • constricting or dilating blood vessels, or airways
  • forming blood clots or breaking them apart
  • contracting or relaxing the smooth muscle in the digestive tract
  • contracting the uterus during pregnancy and while not pregnant

The type of receptor, to which the prostaglandin binds, determines whether it will inhibit or stimulate some of these processes.

Although prostaglandins may have some significant effects, they are typically shortlived and can only affect nearby cells. For this reason, they are present throughout the body.

Typically, prostaglandins are involved in the following:

Effects on reducing pain

  • Pain and inflammation: Prostaglandins can both cause and ease pain. There are typically high concentrations of prostaglandins in inflamed tissues, and prostaglandin E2 causes redness, swelling, and pain. Experts also know prostaglandins have inflammatory effects, including widening blood vessels, fever promotion, and allergic reactions.
  • Promoting healing: Prostaglandins may help tissues heal, particularly in the digestive tract. They decrease stomach acid production and help the gut release more protective mucus. They also affect blood clotting to prevent bleeding and dissolve blood clots once healing has occurred.
  • Relieving pressure in the eye: An optometrist may prescribe prostaglandin eyedrops to reduce intraocular pressure in people with glaucoma.

Effects on the uterus

  • Menstrual cramps: The uterine tissue produces prostaglandins responsible for menstrual cramps. Typically, a person experiences more pain at the beginning of a period, and the pain level reduces as the uterus sheds tissue. Taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) blocks the effects of prostaglandins in the uterus, which may help ease period pain.
  • Pregnancy: In late pregnancy, the uterine tissues have increased numbers of prostaglandins — including PGE2 and PGE2a. They are likely responsible for uterine contractions that move the fetus through the birth canal during labor. For this reason, doctors may prescribe prostaglandin medications to induce childbirth.
  • Abortion: Misoprostol is prostaglandin medication doctors use for first trimester abortions. It stimulates uterine contractions, which can terminate a pregnancy. They may also prescribe the medication if someone has a pregnancy loss to help clear the uterus.

If an individual has high prostaglandins levels, it may cause health issues. One of the main issues is excessive inflammation, which can lead to:

Excessive prostaglandins are also involved in allergic reactions.

Some people do not produce enough prostaglandins — and this can also cause health complications — including:

Doctors may recommend anti-inflammatory medications, such as aspirin and ibuprofen, to reduce the effects of prostaglandins in the body.

These medications block the action of an enzyme called cyclooxygenase, which is responsible for producing prostaglandins.

Depending on the effects of excessive prostaglandins, a doctor may also recommend other approaches. For example, oral contraceptives or birth control pills may help reduce prostaglandin production if someone has painful periods. The medications slow the growth of the tissue lining the uterus, which produces prostaglandins. These hormonal medications may reduce menstrual pain in most people who use them.

If an individual experiences painful menstruation that does not improve with NSAIDs, they should consult a doctor.

They may recommend hormonal birth control to help ease symptoms. They can also rule out other issues, such as endometriosis or uterine fibroids, that could cause painful menstruation.

Prostaglandins are hormone-like substances that the body produces. They play an important role in various bodily processes, including healing, pain, and inflammation. Individuals may experience health problems if their prostaglandin level is too high or too low.

Excessive prostaglandins may lead to painful periods and heavy menstrual bleeding, whereas low levels can contribute to stomach ulcers and glaucoma.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) help reduce the effect of prostaglandins in the body, and a doctor may recommend them for people with painful periods.