Monday, July 15, 2013

Prolactin - The Brain Chemical That Can Kill Libido in Long-Term Relationships

This is an interesting article on prolactin, a chemical (hormone) both men and women produce this chemical, which performs a wide variety of roles in the human body. Here is a little from Wikipedia on prolactin:
Prolactin ... stimulates the mammary glands to produce milk (lactation): Increased serum concentrations of prolactin during pregnancy cause enlargement of the mammary glands of the breasts and prepare for the production of milk. Milk production normally starts when the levels of progesterone fall by the end of pregnancy and a suckling stimulus is present. Sometimes, newborn babies (males as well as females) secrete a milky substance from their nipples known as witch's milk. This is in part caused by maternal prolactin and other hormones. 
Prolactin provides the body with sexual gratification after sexual acts: The hormone counteracts the effect of dopamine, which is responsible for sexual arousal. This is thought to cause the sexual refractory period. The amount of prolactin can be an indicator for the amount of sexual satisfaction and relaxation. Unusually high amounts are suspected to be responsible for impotence and loss of libido (see hyperprolactinemia symptoms). 
Highly elevated levels of prolactin decrease the levels of sex hormones — estrogen in women and testosterone in men.[3] The effects of mildly elevated levels of prolactin are much more variable, in women both substantial increase or decrease of estrogen levels may result.
For men in particular, increased levels of prolactin are seriously problematic. As is stated above, prolactin in men decreases testosterone, which decreases libido and sexual function. That is the context of this question/answer article from Alternet (originally from The Guardian [UK]).

"I Love Her But the Sex Has Died": The Brain Chemical That Can Kill Libido in Long-Term Relationships

Trying to sustain a long-term relationship that is also sexual presents humans with a chemical catch-22

July 9, 2013 | By Carole Jahme 
Writer Carole Jahme shines the cold light of evolutionary psychology on readers' problems.

From an anonymous male, aged 40+

I have been in several very loving, amorous, "serious" relationships as an adult, none frivolous and none (at least on a conscious level – who the hell knows what's going on with me subconsiously) with the intention of being short-term.

Inevitably, however, my sexual attraction for my partner wanes to the point where we become virtually non-sexual. This can happen in less that a year after the relationship started. This condition consistently contributes to the relationship falling apart. My emotional feeling of love stays constant, and the breakup is traumatic for both of us. Add to the mix my undeniable enjoyment of and never-failing satisfaction with masturbation, and it seems to be a recipe for disaster. Is there an evolutionary take on any of this?

Carole replies:

Trying to sustain a long-term relationship that is also sexual presents humans with a chemical catch-22.

Studies on the length of relationships have shown that couples in harmonious, stable and trusting long-term relationships have higher blood levels of oxytocin (a chemical that regulates attachment, promotes cooperation and facilitates sensations of joy and love) than people who are not in compatible relationships. These happy couples also reap other benefits in terms of longer lifespan, lower rates of alcoholism, depression and illness, and more rapid recovery after accidental injury.

But there are conflicting chemicals at work in sexual relationships that sometimes prevent them from ever becoming long-term. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the limbic system – the brain's primitive reward centre. It mediates both the sex drive and addiction to drugs. Brain scans have shown that the rapid rise in dopamine levels during orgasm is similar to that seen in a heroin high. But dopamine falls rapidly following orgasm in both males and females and is replaced with rising levels of a hormone called prolactin.

Both are part of the brain's "dopaminergic" reward system.

At first, rising prolactin causes sleepy post-orgasm contentment. (Interestingly the amount of prolactin produced is far greater after sex with a partner than after masturbation. Thus there is little prolactin relief for those who masturbate.) But once this sleepy feeling of satiation has passed, prolactin may go on rising and cause problems for couples wanting to sustain a long-term sexual relationship. In both men and women excess levels of prolactin can cause loss of libido, anxiety, headaches, mood swings and depression.

High prolactin is associated with sensations of despair. When the prolactin levels of newly caged wild monkeys were monitored, the hormone was seen to rise once the animals realised they were trapped. Levels of the hormone were much higher in monkeys incarcerated for months compared with wild animals that had only just been caged. Science has yet to determine how long prolactin continues to rise and remain high in humans after orgasm, so this is speculative, but in a relationship with lots of sex it could mean levels are elevated for weeks or even months.

How does all this tie in with your predilection for maturbation? There have been some illuminating studies of this behaviour in non-human primates. It has been found, for example, that male monkeys who masturbate tend to be of low status, whereas high-status male monkeys are likely only to experience ejaculation during sex. It also seems that the frequency of masturbation is higher in captive primates than in wild animals. You can make of this what you will.

The dopaminergic system varies among humans, some people exhibiting more reward-seeking behaviour than others, and this may go some way towards explaining why many relationships are burnt out after a year. In reproductive terms, 12 months is long enough for fertilisation to take place. It is also certainly long enough for prolactin levels to rise. Once your libido flags and anxiety sets in, the short-term reward gained from masturbating may give you a dopamine "high" without risking bringing on that post-orgasmic prolactin "low".

Chemical compatibility is essential to all good relationships. Couples lucky enough to enjoy long-term partnerships may have similar sex drives (perhaps not too much sex, or even none at all?) and dopaminergic systems that don't flood their bodies with too much prolactin. Human behaviour seems to be under the control of two evolutionary programs: one that results in fertilisation, disillusionment and a series of partners, and the other that enables humans to develop the lasting relationships that lead to long, happy and healthy lives.

1. Carter, SC (1998) Neuroendocrine perspectives on social attachment and love. Psychoneuroendocrinology; 23(8): 779-818.
2. DeVries, C, Glasper, ER (2005) Social structure influences effects of pair-housing on wound healing. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity; 19(1): 61-68.
3. Coan, JA et al (2006) Lending a hand: social regulation of the neural response to threat. Psychological Science, A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science; 17(12): 1032-1039.
4. Holden, AEC et al (2008) The influence of depression on sexual risk reduction and STD infection in a controlled, randomized intervention trial. Journal of Sexually Transmitted Diseases; 35(10): 898-904.
5. Holstege, G et al (2003) Brain activation during human male ejaculation. The Journal of Neuroscience; 23(27): 9185-9193.
6. Heaton, JPW (2003) Prolactin: An integral player in hormonal politics.Contemporary Urology; 15: 17-25.
7. Suleman, BVM, Mbaruk, A et al. (2004) Physiologic manifestations of stress from capture and restraint of free-ranging male African green monkeys (Cercopithecus aethiops). Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine; 35(1): 20-24.
8. Thomsen, R, Soltis, J (2004) Male masturbation in free-ranging Japanese macaques. International Journal of Primatology; 25(5): 0164-0291.
9. Guo, G, Tong, Y et al (2007) Dopamine transporter, gender, and number of sexual partners among young adults. European Journal of Human Genetics; 15: 279–287.


Anonymous said...

Hi there,

Nice article. I am a 29 yo male. I can confirm the whole lot. Several years ago, I was diagnosed with Sarcoidosis and was put on a large course of Cortisone for around a year. After that, my energy levels and libido disappeared.. After visiting the emergency ward six months ago, due to persistent migraines, I was diagnosed with a large Prolactinoma. I was put on a course of medication to shrink the Prolactinoma and thus reduce the total level of prolactin in the blood. The normal level of prolactin is between 250-500, mine was at 6000. When I was diagnosed with the tumour, the doc asked "Feeling tired, sexual problems, weight gain and low libido?". They were right on the money. Well it is now six months on from being diagnosed, and I can happily say I have the libido of a teenager (funnily inconvenient to me and my beautiful fiancé), energy levels are returning and weight is coming off (prolactin count is now 800, so whatever the docs are doing is definitely working!).

One thing I would like to point out, is that my original GP tried to put me on Testosterone supplements after doing a blood test for low testosterone. I tried it for awhile, before taking myself off it. It didn't make sense to me why I would have low testosterone and i did not want to risk infertility. If they checked for high prolactin as well they would of found the reason for my lethargy. Sure, low testosterone does play a big part physiology, but it was only a small part of the whole condition. The low testosterone was due to the tumour crushing the part of the pituitary gland responsible for testosterone production. Long story short, avoid jumping straight away into testosterone supplements before getting a prolactin count.

william harryman said...

Thanks for sharing your personal experience, anonymous, it's good to hear a real world example of how this manifests and can be treated.

Glad to hear it's all working out for you!

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