Reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
There’s a lot of speculation about the connection between prolactin and hair loss. After all, women produce the most prolactin when breastfeeding — which is also when many people shed more hair than usual.
But is this just a coincidence, or can prolactin cause hair loss?
If you’ve noticed a few too many strands of hair on your pillow or in your brush, a couple of things could be the culprit. Many issues can cause hair loss and female pattern baldness, from stress to illness to genetics.
And while there’s no clear evidence to suggest prolactin causes hair loss, hormonal issues can lead to hair loss in women.
Hair loss can be pretty distressing. Dealing with it can have you, well…tearing your hair out.
The good news? Treatments are available to help your locks stay healthy and luscious. Depending on the type of hair loss you have, it might be possible to promote hair regrowth and slow down shedding.
Prolactin (also called PRL) is perhaps best known for stimulating milk production during breastfeeding.
(Get it? Prolactin — like lactation?)
But that’s not all it does. Even if you’ve never breastfed, prolactin plays a critical role in your health. The hormone assists with breast development, stress regulation and hundreds of bodily functions needed to maintain homeostasis. Both women and men produce prolactin.
Prolactin is a pretty amazing — and important — hormone. As with all hormones, though, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
It’s natural to have high prolactin levels while pregnant and breastfeeding. Typically, it’ll slow down to normal levels once you stop nursing.
Prolactin levels may also increase when you’re stressed, exercising or sleeping. Some newer research also suggests that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be linked to higher levels of prolactin — but for now, the evidence is inconclusive.
However, very high levels of prolactin, known as hyperprolactinemia, are a cause for concern.
Hyperprolactinemia is usually caused by prolactinoma, a non-cancerous tumor on the pituitary gland that secretes prolactin. The pituitary gland is a crucial part of the endocrine system, meaning it’s responsible for producing hormones.
Other causes of hyperprolactinemia include:
Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and other endocrine disorders
Kidney and liver disease
Trauma to the chest
Hyperprolactinemia can cause uncomfortable symptoms, such as:
Menstrual cycle changes (like irregular periods or no periods at all)
Low bone mass
Secretion of milky discharge from the nipples when not pregnant or nursing
Erectile dysfunction (ED)
If you have high prolactin levels, you may need to see a healthcare professional specializing in endocrinology.
Fortunately, high prolactin levels are treatable. You may be prescribed dopamine receptor agonists, like bromocriptine or cabergoline, to lower your levels of prolactin.
Dopamine agonists work because dopamine is an inhibitor of prolactin secretion, meaning it reduces the amount of prolactin released into the body. Also, dopamine agonists can safely shrink prolactinoma tumors.
If your hair isn’t looking as thick and lush as it usually does, you probably want to know why. Though there are many established causes of hair loss, prolactin isn’t one of them.
People with hyperprolactinemia sometimes experience hair loss, but there’s very little evidence showing high prolactin actually causes this hair loss.
A 2006 study treated organ-cultured human scalp hair follicles with prolactin. It concluded that prolactin may stop hair growth — but this observation wasn’t tested on live humans, just tissue in a lab.
Later, a 2012 study looked at hair loss and hyperprolactinemia in live subjects. It found no evidence that high prolactin causes hair loss. With that said, it was a relatively small study involving only 40 women.
Researchers noted that while some women with hyperprolactinemia may experience hair loss, this alone doesn’t prove prolactin itself causes hair loss.
It could be that certain conditions that cause hair loss also cause high prolactin.
For instance, PCOS may cause high levels of prolactin. Although PCOS is associated with hair loss, this isn’t necessarily because of prolactin. People with PCOS have high levels of androgens (male hormones), which can trigger hair loss.
Ironically, PCOS can also cause hirsutism. This is when hair grows on other parts of the body — including the face, arms and tummy.
Likewise, you may experience hair loss after giving birth. During this period, you’re producing more prolactin for breastfeeding — but also, you’re experiencing a range of postpartum hormonal changes, including falling estrogen levels. The stress of childbirth and coping with a newborn may also be a factor.
Hair loss can also be caused by:
Stress. Also called telogen effluvium, stress-related hair loss can be triggered by sudden weight loss, illness, traumatic events and other stressful experiences. According to research, hair loss may suddenly affect you three to four months after the stressful event. When you’re stressed, your adrenal glands produce cortisol, which may disrupt the hair growth cycle.
Menopause. Some people experience menopausal hair loss. During menopause, your hormone levels change, leading to less estrogen and more androgens like testosterone and dihydrotestosterone (DHT). This may result in female pattern hair loss.
Styling. Ballerina-style buns, tight braids and high ponytails may look good – but they can stress out your hair follicles. This could lead to traction alopecia, usually around the hairline. Harsh chemical treatments may also cause your hair to break more frequently, which can make your hair look thinner.
Genetics. Genetics may make you more likely to develop androgenetic alopecia, which affects up to 50 percent of people at some point during their lives. This could lead to crown hair thinning, male pattern baldness or female pattern hair loss.
Thyroid hormone dysfunction. Both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism can lead to changes in your hair, including hair thinning.
Alopecia areata. This is a fairly rare autoimmune issue where the immune system attacks hair follicles. Your follicles may be damaged to the point of stopping hair growth.
It’s important to remember that some hair loss is totally normal. Every strand goes through a four-phase hair growth cycle that looks like this:
The anagen phase, a two- to six-year phase when the hair shaft grows from keratinocytes in the hair bulb
The catagen phase, also called the regression phase, where the follicle shrinks and the hair shaft stops growing
The telogen phase, during which the hair neither grows nor sheds
The exogen phase, when the hair shaft falls out
It’s just the circle of (hair) life.
Your scalp usually sheds between 50 and 100 hairs per day, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). But if you’ve noticed more hair loss than normal, it’s a good idea to speak with a healthcare professional.
There’s no evidence prolactin causes hair loss. But if you’ve been diagnosed with high prolactin levels and have lost more hair than usual, you might want to chat with a healthcare professional — another issue could be at play.
Depending on the cause, hair loss may be temporary or permanent. Certain treatment options might help reduce hair loss and promote healthier, stronger hair.
One of the most common treatments for hair loss is minoxidil, a well-known hair growth stimulator. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, it’s a safe and effective way to treat certain kinds of hair loss.
Research on minoxidil shows that it extends the anagen phase of the hair growth cycle, which basically means the hair grows for a longer period.
You could try one or more of the following:
Minoxidil drops. This over-the-counter solution contains 2% minoxidil and can be applied to the scalp twice a day to promote hair regrowth.
Minoxidil foam. A 5% concentration of minoxidil, this quick-drying foam is easy to distribute onto your scalp.
Topical finasteride and minoxidil spray. Created specifically for postmenopausal women, this prescription-only spray combines different concentrations of minoxidil and finasteride. Finasteride is another proven treatment for hair loss.
Biotin gummies. By supporting the production of keratin — a building block for hair — biotin can promote stronger, healthier hair. As a bonus, biotin gummies are great for your nails, too.
Volumizing shampoo and conditioner. If your hair tends to look flat and thin, this winning combo is worth a try. Our volumizing formulas contain biotin and promote fuller-looking hair.
Depending on the type of hair loss you’re experiencing, a healthcare professional might also recommend medications that contain steroids, which may promote regrowth.
Not sure where to start? Talk with a healthcare professional if you’ve noticed serious hair loss. They may suggest seeing a dermatologist, having your hormone levels checked or getting tested for endocrine disorders.
As mentioned, lifestyle factors can play a role in hair loss, too. Depending on what’s causing your hair to thin out, self-care may help.
Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, drinking plenty of water and eating a balanced diet. Try to manage stress in a healthy way — think journaling and therapy, not binge-watching Bridgerton until 2 a.m.
Now’s also a good time to revisit your hair care routine. Avoid tight ponytails, harsh treatments or anything that might damage your hair further. You can also reduce hair breakage by using a silk bonnet or pillowcase while you sleep. (Now that will make you feel like a duchess.)
Does high prolactin cause hair loss? There’s not enough research on the topic to say for sure — but at present, very little evidence suggests it does.
Your prolactin levels will increase when you’re breastfeeding. During this time, you may have some noticeable hair loss. This is probably not because of prolactin but due to other hormonal changes that come with pregnancy and childbirth.
Here’s what to keep in mind:
Many issues cause hair loss. Stress, surgery, trauma, pregnancy, medications, health conditions, styling techniques, genetics — there are almost too many possible causes of hair loss to count.
Don’t ignore hair loss. Some causes of hair loss need medical treatment, so talk with a professional if you’re shedding more hair than usual. Hair loss could be your body’s way of telling you to practice self-care, whether by checking your thyroid hormone levels or finding better ways to manage stress.
Hair loss is usually treatable. The great news is there are many effective hair loss treatments, from nourishing topical drops to supplements and prescription medication. The right treatment could slow down hair loss and even help with regrowth.
Wanna learn more about keeping your locks healthy? Check out our blog post on how to prevent hair loss in women, our guide on how to get stronger hair and promote growth and these scalp care tips for women — your mane will thank you.
If you’ve lost a noticeable amount of hair recently, it’s a good idea to speak with a medical professional. They can help you pinpoint the cause and help you find a treatment that’ll work for you.
Take our hair quiz to get started with a free online consultation.
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