Monday, June 11, 2012

Love and Labor Hormones

Have you ever wondered how in the world women give birth? I have, and I've done it twice! When you take inventory of all the nuts and bolts and parts on a woman's body, it just doesn't seem possible that she could grow an entire human being let alone expel it from her body!

For today's Mama Monday I want to talk about the hormones in our body that set in motion the physiological processes that make childbirth possible. Many people will describe childbirth and the rush of emotions by saying it was an "adrenaline rush," when this is actually a misnomer. It makes sense that one would think that way, since adrenaline is the only hormone usually associated with great feats of strength!

The hormones that function in birth are actually the opposite of adrenaline and catecholamines, which are involved in what we call the "fight or flight" response. Adrenaline and catecholamines, while enabling many to get through traumatic events while injured or flee from predators, actually make muscles tense up (which you don't want in labor) and are often associated with fear. In childbirth, adrenaline and dopamine (a catecholamine) will tell the woman's body that it is not safe to birth the baby, and the labor process can slow and sometimes halt altogether. This often results in unwanted or unnecessary interventions.

While one may feel a little uncomfortable coming to terms with it, it should be a rather obvious observation to note that we give birth and feed our young with our sexual organs. Stay with me here. Ever heard the term "oxytocin?" You've probably heard of pitocin, the trade name of the synthetic form of oxytocin given to laboring women to speed up their labor or to induce labor in a woman who has not begun spontaneously. Oxytocin is the hormone naturally released in a woman's body that relaxes tissues and tendons and stimulates contractions necessary for moving a baby down into the birth canal and pushing it out.

Tulsa Doula, Honeybee Mama, Hormones in LaborYou know what else produces oxytocin in our bodies? Love and love making! That "adrenaline rush" many women describe was a rush, but it wasn't adrenaline. It was oxytocin, the same hormone that made them giddy with excitement when they fell in love with their spouse and the same hormone emitted during the climax of the event that produced the baby in the first place! Nipple stimulation and breastfeeding also produce oxytocin.

Endorphins and beta endorphins also occur in labor. Endorphins contribute to what we call the "runner's high," and come into play during exercise, painful experiences, love and orgasm. Other pleasurable experiences can produce endorphins as well (I'd like to think I remember a news story saying that chocolate stimulated the production of endorphins, but that may be wishful thinking)! These are "feel good" chemicals that help us cope with pain. Athletes and trainers know that endorphins make it possible for people to run marathons, complete Iron Man competitions and climb mountains.

Do you see where I'm going yet? Love and labor hormones are the same! When a woman feels fearful or stressed, her brain will pump her body full of adrenaline which will slow down her labor and in turn make it substantially more painful. On the other hand, when she feels loved and safe, her brain will release oxytocin and endorphins which will both keep labor moving along and also help her cope with the pain. There are actually many instances where women feel ecstatic and even orgasmic during childbirth. Don't get squeamish here - remember how we talked about sex organs being the same as birth organs? It's just physiology here, friends.

I often talk to my clients about the difference from the fear cycle and the safety cycle. Watch this:

Cycle of Fear in Labor

Trigger: perception, interruption, distraction or communication, presence of unwanted people
 ~leads to~
Emotional response: fear, uncertainty, anxiety, feeling unsafe/unsupported
 ~leads to~
Hormonal release: stress hormones (adrenaline and dopamine), "fight or flight" response
 ~leads to~
Physical response: increased heart rate and breathing, decreased blood flow to uterus
 ~leads to~
Result: tension, muscle soreness and fatigue, increased pain, less effective labor

Now, compare the above cycle with the following:

Cycle of Safety in Labor

Trigger: safe environment, warmth, darkness, quiet, solitude, respect, loving words and actions
~leads to~
Emotional response: feeling safe, confident, peaceful, loved
~leads to~
Hormonal release: oxytocin and endorphins
~leads to~
Physical response: muscles loosen and relax, increased blood flow to uterus, cervix opens, effective contractions
~leads to~
Result: relaxation, confidence builds, decreased pain, feelings of love and joy, more effective labor  

So, if oxytocin and endorphins are released when falling in love and during love making, and also contribute to successful labor with less pain, wouldn't it make sense to try to incorporate those two experiences more? 

For women giving birth with their spouse accompanying them, imagine this: in the weeks leading up to birth and as labor begins, I would encourage you to take a trip down memory lane and fall in love again! Go on dates to places you did in the very beginning. Talk about what you felt, relive your proposal and your wedding, and make love. Consequently, prostiglandins in semen soften the cervix and prepare it for childbirth. In some cases animal sources of this are used to achieve this outcome; wouldn't you rather use the human source?

tulsa doula, honeybee mama, hormones in labor

Women giving birth without a partner can still help these hormones along by focusing on activities they love and which make them happy. Exercise, laughter, romantic comedies, poetry, music, massage, nipple stimulation and others can all stimulate oxytocin and endorphin production. 

This is all the more reason to have a doula with you and other loving, supportive friends with you to encourage this safe environment during labor and birth! At Honeybee Mama, I'm committed to helping you have the birth experience you truly want by getting you the tools and resources you need to make informed decisions about your birth. Schedule your first conversation today!

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Marcus Fidel said...

The neurobiology of love, mating, childbirth, of human bonding are miraculous. I'm of the opinion, we have just barely scratched the surface of the endorphins, enkalphakins, endocanabanoids, oxytocin and all the neuropeptides you describe here. Miraculous. Thank God for Prarie Voles, animals that mate for life, that showed us this: The aspects of labor you mention are fascinating with respect to the neurochemistry and human bonding element.

Missy Rose said...

I agree. I think in understanding childbirth and in an attempt to pursue the best (i.e. safe, healthy, most pleasurable) experiences possible we should first look to the body itself and the natural processes before depending too readily on medicine and technology. If it ain't broke, don't fix it! As always, thanks for your input, Marcus!

MS said...

Super post Mo!!! It makes so much sense! Love you, M

Missy Rose said...

Thanks, MS - love you too!

Marcus Fidel said...

I was looking around on this topic and I think the one thing that messes with the western (Judeo-Christian based) sensitivities is that certain women are able to convert the pain of labor into ecstatic pleasure. If it doesn't reach this level, I have just read about women who can access their natural pain systems and may not get pleasure out of birthing but do not have excruciating pain. It is interesting to note from some additional research I have done in this area that emotional pain uses the same pathways and systems in the brain, and pleasure uses the same pathways and neurological systems as pain in the brain. In effect pain and pleasure are different sides of the same coin.

Here is a link to a good summary article. Like I said in the previous post, we have barely scratched the surface of this area of study. What this means also is some people can get addicted to pain, both physical and emotional, and some people can learn to control their pain and pleasure using mainly eastern techniques.
Those "old hippies" on the Farm in Tennessee, peers of Gaskin, that brought much of the Eastern thought with them like Zen, have tapped into some of this..

Marcus Fidel said...

Here is the link to the study that showed emotional and physical pain come from the same areas. The implication for childbirth is that if a woman is tense, frightened, anxious, depressed, angry, jealous, she is likely to feel more intense and worse pain than if she is soothed and calmed. Many proponents of traditional and natural birth use this to explain why they do what they do. There is indeed less pain, which is a subjective experience, at home in your own bed than in the hospital from what I have read.

Marcus Fidel said...

My last thought on this topic for today anyways.

So I was thinking that one of the hardest things to overcome in the western mind is this notion rooted in the Old Testament Book of Genesis that women are cursed to suffer pain during childbirth. From my reading and my experience its almost like this expectation is burned into some women's mind. In reading about this topic, and there is a substantial amount out there, not all of it quality, I came across this idea of ecstatic birth:

To me given the neurobiology and relationship between emotional pain and physical pain, and the relationship between the pain and pleasure centers in the brain (see above posts) This idea is sound scientifically and perfectly reasonable. It seems to me from what I understand its a matter of education. I can say I was never taught about this in medical school or residency. If midwifes and doulas carry this knowledge of "ecstatic" birth I am of the opinion this needs to become the standard of care. Regardless of what the Old Testament says. This is a better way. From what I read it improves the bond between mother and child and enhances the well being of all involved with the birth. This is some remarkable and interesting stuff. Thanks Misty Rose for bringing this topic up.

Missy Rose said...

thank you for sharing these articles, Marcus!! I'm just now getting to reading them. great research and fascinating information. this is a rich and deep subject that if we understand it, we can do so much to improve maternity care worldwide!

Missy Rose said...

thank you for sharing these articles, Marcus!! I'm just now getting to reading them. great research and fascinating information. this is a rich and deep subject that if we understand it, we can do so much to improve maternity care worldwide!

Tahsin khan said...

Thanks for posting about this, I would love to read more about this topic.
Bio identical hormones

Missy Rose said...

You're welcome and thanks for reading and commenting!


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