Terms Explained: what are prostaglandins?

Remember: prostaglandins help the uterus squeeze!
Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

Did you know that the same weird thing in your body can 1) make periods painful, 2) help cure newborns of certain kinds of heart disease, and 3) make a uterus contract?

Welcome to the confusing and impressive world of prostaglandins.

Prostaglandins are composites of fats, but they act in some ways like hormones. They were first discovered in 1935 by Ulf von Euler, a Swedish chemist and eventual Nobel Prize winner.

(If you’re bored, read up on von Euler and his family: his dad won the Nobel Prize – forty-one years before he did – for studying fermentation; his maternal grandpa discovered two elements of the periodic table; and his mom was the first woman in Sweden to receive a doctoral degree in science. But it’s not all praiseworthy; his family also has ties to Nazism.)

Anyway, von Euler was studying semen and managed to extract prostaglandins. Since he thought they came from the prostate, he named them prostaglandins. Turns out, they come from almost any kind of cell in the human body, sometimes as a normal course of events and sometimes in response to a trauma.

Prostaglandins quickly became a new hot thing in science. In 1970, a team lead by Elias James Corey managed to make entirely synthetic prostaglandins. Then, the 1982 Nobel Prize went to three other scientists – Sune Bergström, Bengt Samuelsson, and John Vane – for figuring out the chemical structures of prostaglandins, how they form and break down, and that anti-inflammatories can minimize or block their effect.

So, what we’ve learned from this research and lots more is that prostaglandins have short term, region-specific effects in the body. This is good because of how powerful they are. And they use their powers in VERY diverse ways. For example, prostaglandins help your blood clot when you have a wound; they also help dissolve that clot after you’ve recovered. They can cause inflammation in the body or resolve it. They can also relieve pressure in your eyes or cause arthritis, help cure your stomach ulcer or make your menstruation really heavy – or even painful. And for some newborns with congenital heart diseases, prostaglandins can save lives.

You may know that I’m fascinated by how incredibly the human body works, but you may be wondering, “Why is Abby talking about these things?”

Well, prostaglandins are actually very relevant to family formation. We know they play a role in making ovulation happen (which we don’t yet totally understand, so if you’re in the science world or know someone in the science world, keep this in mind as a really cool research topic). Prostaglandins also are related to how fertile semen is, though this may be because testosterone levels affect both prostaglandin levels and fertility levels.

Further, research has found that two types of prostaglandins – F and E series – play a role in starting and continuing labor. Specifically, both F and E series prostaglandins cause uterine contractions, and further, E series prostaglandins help the cervix to ripen. Because of these effects, synthetic prostaglandins have been used to help induce labor since the 1960s. If you’ve ever heard of misoprostol, for example, that’s a medication made with artificial prostaglandins. It is sometimes prescribed to induce labor for healthy babies or for helping a body deliver the body of a baby who has passed away. Another drug that uses artificial prostaglandins in a similar way is dinoprostone.

Because prostaglandins are so powerful, artificial prostaglandins are not recommended when there is a risk associated with uterine overstimulation (so, for example, when there is an increased chance of uterine rupture). For more information, check out this Cochrane review on vaginal prostaglandins, this 2015 review on inducing labor using prostaglandins, or this 2018 article with clinical recommendations for the use of prostaglandins (specifically misoprostol and dinoprostone) in inducing labor.

If you have any questions about how prostaglandins may or could be at work in your fertility, talk to your medical care provider. And if you want to learn more about prostaglandins generally, look them up in academic journals at your local library, college, or university, or consider whether you might get into studying them. We know a lot about these weird and powerful hormone-like substances, but we have so much more to learn! And you could be a part of it!

If you want to learn more about reproductive health and/or childbirth, check out my available childbirth education classes and contact me for more info!

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