If you’ve given birth before, you've probably heard of oxytocin – especially if you're a breastfeeding mother.
Oxytocin is the hormone that controls uterine contractions during labour, and helps with the milk ejection in breastfeeding.
But this amazing neuropeptide is involved in so much more than just those two functions.
Studies show that oxytocin is calming and can improve mood – it lowers your blood pressure and blocks stress hormones.
It can help relieve inflammation and stimulate metabolic functions, like digestion and growth.
Oxytocin is present in females and males, and is active in social interactions.
It brings about feelings of relaxation, selflessness, and love. World renown obstetrician, Michel Odent, says, “Whatever the facet of love we consider, oxytocin is involved.”
And oxytocin may be the key to adapting to motherhood. Synthetic oxytocin, however, which is often used to induce or augment labour, does not act the same way in the body as naturally occurring oxytocin. Pitocin/syntocinon does not cross the blood-brain barrier; and while it does produce the same mechanical effects on the body, it does not lead to the same behavioural effects, like maternal attachment promoting behaviours.
The amazingly versatile hormone is present throughout the body during many different activities, and it serves many functions. Here are 15 fabulous and fascinating facts about oxytocin:
Oxytocin is released in pulses, and the more pulses the more effects seen from the hormone. Baby's suckling triggers these pulses, which improves milk production and release.
A surge of oxytocin is released as a baby is being born (due to stretching of receptors in the lower vagina), and baby's oxytocin levels are high at birth, as well.
The highest peak of oxytocin in a woman’s lifetime is right after her baby is born, but before the placenta is delivered – we can maximise the hormone's potential by placing baby skin to skin with mum and leaving the two undisturbed during the time.
Skin to skin contact increases oxytocin release – whether it's mother and baby right after birth, dad massaging his infant, or mum and dad holding hands.
Speaking of birth, an epidural can impact the effects of oxytocin by blocking the pathways it travels. Since oxytocin increases your pain threshold, the epidural may not even be needed.
Prolactin, the milk-making hormone, is dependent on oxytocin for its production. The levels of these two hormones are strongly correlated during breastfeeding.
Oxytocin helps mothers interact with their babies. Oxytocin levels correlate with the amount of mother baby interaction, and both benefit from its effects.
When a baby kneads at the breast, oxytocin is released – so let your baby hug the breast during feeding rather than tucking or swaddling those hands away.
Oxytocin release can be hindered by a stressful environment, as fight-or-flight hormones inhibit oxytocin. But if someone feels emotionally supported, calm and warm, the environment works in favour of her hormones.
Oxytocin helps your body use nutrients through digestion, and aids in transferring those nutrients into breastmilk (and to the fetus during pregnancy).
Oxytocin has direct effects on brain growth, especially the neocortex of the newborn.
Oxytocin is released during orgasm (male and female). Orgasm has a host of physical and emotional health benefits, so don’t forget to give your partner the nudge now and again!
Problems with the oxytocin system have been implicated in mental health issues, such as schizophrenia, drug dependency and suicide.
Positive effects of oxytocin exposure last well past weaning – repeated ‘doses' of this hormone over the months of breastfeeding can improve maternal health, though more research is needed in this area.
Aside from its reproductive roles, oxytocin is released when sharing a meal with a friend, hugging someone you care about, and even when petting your dog. So if you’re feeling down, spend some quality time with a good girlfriend, get your hug on with those you care about and love (and ditch the quickie hug, give it longer than a few seconds, relax into it and see how different it feels!) or get connected with your partner… and we’ll leave the rest up to you!
Want to learn more? Kersten Uvnas Moberg will soon release a new book, Oxytocin: The Biological Guide to Motherhood. Michel Odent's book, The Scientification of Love, explores many facets of love, humanity and hormones. Sarah Buckley's e-book, Ecstatic Birth, explores the hormonal blueprint for normal birth (learn more on her website at www.sarahbuckley.com).
- Bell AF, Erickson EN, & Carter CS. (2014). Beyond labor: The role of natural and synthetic oxytocin in the transition to motherhood. J Midwifery & Women's Health, 59(1), 35-42.
- Carter CS. (2014). Oxytocin pathways and the evolution of human behavior. Annual review of psychology, 65, 17-39.
- Odent M. (2001). The scientification of love. London: Free Assn Books.
- Odent M. (2002). The first hour following birth: don’t wake the mother! Midwifery Today, (61), 9.
- Uvnas-Moberg K. (2012). Short-term and long-term effects of oxytocin released by suckling and of skin-to-skin contact. In Mothers and Infants. Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development: From Research to Practice and Policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 299.