Prostaglandins are a group of lipids that are manufactured at the sites of tissue injury or damage, or infection sites. They are involved in helping with injury and illness in the body. Prostaglandins are responsible for controlling processes such as blood flow, inflammation, the formation of blood clots, and even the induction of labor in pregnant women. They can have different functions in the body, depending on which receptors they are attached to. Here’s a closer look at what are prostaglandins and how do they affect your body.
What are Prostaglandins and What Do They Do?
Prostaglandins are natural compounds present in the body that is made up of fats. They have a hormone-like effect in many processes of the body. They are essential because they can modify their effects depending on which type of receptors they are attached to. Some of the known functions or effects of prostaglandins include increased sensitivity to pain, uterine cramping during labor, blood flow, the formation of blood clots, and they even have a role to play in inflammation.
Researchers have today even manufactured artificial prostaglandins to use in medication for inducing labor.(1)
Prostaglandins are considered to be unique compounds because they mimic the effects of natural hormones in the body. They are able to influence many processes of the body by being present in certain tissues.
However, unlike hormones, prostaglandins do not get released from a gland. Instead, the body produces prostaglandins from a number of tissues located throughout the body.
Different prostaglandins have different effects, and many times, these effects can even be the exact opposite of one another. For example:
- Opening or closing up the airways
- Forming platelets into a cluster for blood clotting or breaking them up
- Dilation or constriction of blood vessels
- Causing uterine contractions in pregnancy and also when not pregnant(2)
- Relaxing and contracting of smooth muscle in the gastrointestinal tract
As evident, prostaglandins have the ability to play a wide variety of roles in the body, and doctors are still trying to understand the many ways in which prostaglandins affect the body.
How Do Prostaglandins Affect Your Body?
Prostaglandins have many different effects on your body, but at the same time, they also have some limitations. They tend to have a short half-life, which means that they do not last for long inside the body. Due to this reason, they are only able to affect the cells that they are close to. This is why they are present throughout the body to exert their effects on different processes. Here are some of the common effects of prostaglandins on the body.
Inflammation and Pain
Prostaglandins play a major role in promoting pain reduction, but at the same time, they can also cause pain. For example, many non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) work by blocking the creation of pain-causing prostaglandins.(3)
Doctors have reported finding high concentrations of prostaglandins in areas of inflammation in the body. It is known that prostaglandins have a wide variety of inflammatory effects, such as promoting fevers, causing vasodilation, and recruiting the cells that are involved in allergic reactions.
Experts have also recognized that the prostaglandin type PGE2 causes swelling, redness, and pain.(4)
We tend to assume the worst upon hearing there is inflammation in the body, but inflammation is not always harmful. Inflammation is also one of the first steps toward healing. However, it is a prolonged inflammation that becomes a problem when it gets associated with chronic pain and disease.
Prostaglandins and Eye Pressure
Prostaglandins also have a role to play in reducing intraocular pressure. Due to this reason, many doctors prescribe prostaglandin-containing eye drops to help decrease pressure in the eyes. This effect of prostaglandins helps in the treatment of conditions such as glaucoma.(5, 6)
Role in Pregnancy
Prostaglandins have a significant role to play in pregnancy. In the later stages of pregnancy, a woman will begin to have a large number of many different prostaglandins present in the uterine tissue. These include the prostaglandins PGE2 and PGE2a. Doctors have found that these prostaglandins are responsible for starting the uterine contractions that kick start the process of labor.
Uterine contractions are what help move a baby down the birth canal and prepares the body for labor. Doctors are likely to prescribe prostaglandin medications that help attach to the prostaglandin receptors in the uterus to induce the process of labor in women who are over their due date.(7)
Role in Menstrual Period
Prostaglandin receptors are located in the uterus regardless of whether a woman is pregnant or not. Prostaglandins are believed to be responsible for the uterine cramping women experience during painful periods. This is why taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen, during periods helps block the functioning of the prostaglandins and reduce menstrual pain.(8)
Role in Abortion
Since prostaglandins are known to stimulate uterine contractions, many doctors prescribe prostaglandins to cause an abortion or the termination of a pregnancy. Doctors are likely to prescribe the medication misoprostol in cases that involve a first-trimester abortion. In some cases, a combination of other medications may also be prescribed.(9)
Misoprostol is also prescribed in case of a miscarriage. This prostaglandin-based medication helps the uterus release or push out the products of conception. This reduces the risk of complications after a miscarriage and also promotes the chance for a healthy conception the next time.
Promotes General Healing
Prostaglandins are known to have general healing effects as well, especially in the stomach and gastrointestinal tract. Prostaglandins help reduce the production of stomach acid and also enhances the release of protective mucus in the gastrointestinal tract, which is especially helpful in the case of stomach ulcers.(10, 11)
Additionally, prostaglandins also have a role to play in blood clotting to prevent a person from bleeding out from a wound or injury. At the same time, prostaglandins also help dissolve clots when a person is healing from an injury or wound.(12)
Can Prostaglandins Cause Complications?
If there are too many or too few prostaglandins in the body, then it can lead to complications. For example, too many prostaglandins in the body can lead to menstrual cramping and arthritis. On the other hand, too few prostaglandins can cause stomach ulcers and glaucoma.
Doctors are today also using prostaglandins for treating congenital heart-related conditions such as patent ductus arteriosus.(13)
Prostaglandins and Medications
Many pharmaceutical companies are manufacturing medications that affect prostaglandins in the body. These medications are as different as the actions of the prostaglandins themselves. Some of these medicines include:
Carboprost (brand name Hemabate): This is a medication that produces uterine contractions during labor and helps reduce postpartum bleeding.
Bimatoprost (brand name Lumigan and Latisse): This is a common medication used in the treatment of glaucoma, and it also promotes the growth of eyelash.
Latanoprost (brand name Xalatan): This eye drop is used in the treatment of glaucoma.
Dinoprostone (brand name Cervidil): This medication promotes labor by dilating the cervix.
Misoprostol (brand name Cytotec): This drug has many different uses, including prevention of gastric ulcers, inducing labor, and also inducing abortion. Doctors sometimes also prescribe it to decrease postpartum bleeding.
Medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are also used to reduce the inflammation and discomfort caused by prostaglandins.
Prostaglandins are similar to hormones and affect many different processes in the body, from causing pain to relieving pain as well. Doctors have today figured out ways to use prostaglandins to reduce postpartum bleeding, induce labor, help blood clotting, reduce ocular pressure, etc. Prostaglandins are being widely used as a successful treatment for many conditions.
- Husslein, P., Kofler, E., Rasmussen, A.B., Sumulong, L., Fuchs, A.R. and Fuchs, F., 1983. Oxytocin and the initiation of human parturition: IV. Plasma concentrations of oxytocin and 13, 14-dihydro-15-keto-prostaglandin F2α during induction of labor by artificial rupture of the membranes. American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, 147(5), pp.503-507.
- Karim, S.M., 1972. Prostaglandins and human reproduction: physiological roles and clinical uses of prostaglandins in relation to human reproduction. In The Prostaglandins (pp. 71-164). Springer, Dordrecht.
- Ferreira, S.H., Moncada, S. and Vane, J.R., 1973. Prostaglandins and the mechanism of analgesia produced by aspirin‐like drugs. British journal of pharmacology, 49(1), pp.86-97.
- Ma, W. and Quirion, R., 2008. Does COX2-dependent PGE2 play a role in neuropathic pain?. Neuroscience letters, 437(3), pp.165-169.
- Stjernschantz, J.W. and Resul, B., Kabi Pharmacia AB, 1995. Prostaglandin derivatives for the treatment of glaucoma or ocular hypertension. U.S. Patent 5,422,368.
- Feldman, R.M., 2003. Conjunctival hyperemia and the use of topical prostaglandins in glaucoma and ocular hypertension. Journal of ocular pharmacology and therapeutics, 19(1), pp.23-35.
- Dray, F. and Frydman, R., 1976. Primary prostaglandins in amniotic fluid in pregnancy and spontaneous labor. American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, 126(1), pp.13-19.
- Rosenwaks, Z. and Seegar-Jones, G., 1980. Menstrual pain: its origin and pathogenesis. The Journal of reproductive medicine, 25(4 Suppl), pp.207-212.
- Lauersen, N.H., 1979. Investigation of prostaglandins for abortion. Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica, 58(sup81), pp.1-36.
- Arakawa, T., Higuchi, K., Fukuda, T., Fujiwara, Y., Kobayashi, K. and Kuroki, T., 1998. Prostaglandins in the stomach: an update. Journal of clinical gastroenterology, 27, pp.S1-S11.
- Konturek, S.J., Konturek, P.C. and Brzozowski, T., 2005. Prostaglandins and ulcer healing. Journal of physiology and pharmacology, 56, p.5.
- Marx, J.L., 1977. Blood clotting: The role of the prostaglandins. Science, 196(4294), pp.1072-1075.
- Schneider, D.J. and Moore, J.W., 2006. Patent ductus arteriosus. Circulation, 114(17), pp.1873-1882.