Prostaglandins are a group of lipids that function similarly to hormones and manage processes including inflammation and blood flow. They are created during a chemical reaction at the site of an injury, and produce contractions during labor. Prostaglandins also play a role in maintaining erections.

What are prostaglandins?

Prostaglandins are a group of lipids that play a crucial role in reproduction and in reducing inflammation. Though they have hormone-like effects in the body, unlike hormones, prostaglandins are not secreted from a gland. Rather, they are created directly in the tissue when and where they are needed.

Prostaglandins are present throughout the menstrual cycle, triggering muscles in the uterus to contract. Consequently, higher levels of prostaglandins can lead to more painful menstrual cramps. In addition, these chemicals play an important role during pregnancy, helping the cervix dilate as part of labor.

Prostaglandins also play a role in establishing erections. In fact, those experiencing erectile dysfunction (ED) are sometimes injected with prostaglandins as a treatment. Lastly, prostaglandins control inflammation, and are created in the area of the body where they are needed. As a result, they contribute to redness, swelling, feeling pain, or rising temperatures in response to injury or infection. 

Prostaglandins in fertility

While prostaglandins control inflammation and blood flow, these chemicals also play an important role in reproductive processes. Prostaglandins have a direct impact on menstrual cycles and throughout pregnancy. For example, prostaglandins are used to control excessive bleeding after giving birth; terminate a pregnancy in cases of missed, inevitable, or incomplete abortion; and help deal with patent ductus arteriosus, a condition in which the blood vessel does not close after giving birth. Prostaglandins also aid in the achievement of erection, and are even used as a treatment for erectile dysfunction.

Additionally, prostaglandins are present in seminal fluid. It’s believed that they help move sperm through the female reproductive tract by affecting sperm motility and/or uterine and fallopian tube constriction.

History of prostaglandins

Studies exploring prostaglandins date back to 1930, when two New York City gynecologists Razelle Kurzrock and C. Lieb discovered that seminal fluid caused stimulation or relaxation on the isolated human uterus. They concluded that patients that have undergone successful pregnancies respond to the stimuli with relaxation, while sterile patients experience painful contractions. Swedish physiologist Ulf von Euler coined the term prostaglandins in 1935 after isolating prostaglandins from the seminal fluid. The term itself is derived from “prostate gland.”

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