Oxytocin: the Chemical of Calm and Trustworthiness is Nature’s Love Potion

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Pioneering obstetrician Michel Odent described how until recently love was the realm of the poets, artists and philosophers.  Now however love can be considered at the intersection of art and science.  For science has seen huge growth in understanding the nature of love, and research increasingly links back to an elusive substance called oxytocin. Oxytocin, often dubbed the "hormone of love", holds immense sway over the way we feel when we make love, how we give birth, how successful we are at breastfeeding and how we connect to our newborn babies.

The magnitude of this substance continues to unfold, but there have been some remarkable discoveries about its effects.  The research underpins the role of midwives, doulas and others present at birth when they are able to hold the space and create a calm environment for the woman and her baby.

Our rush to do

As doulas we are aware of its connection with birth and motherhood.  However in life there are two mains systems that are at play in life.  The one that is most prevalent in our modern frantic world is the polar opposite of love – stress and fear.  Michel Odent suggests that the price the human race has paid for civilization based around stress is problems with low sex drive, difficult childbirth and difficulties breastfeeding.  Oxytocin however is linked to calmness and connectedness, which is often missing in our rush to do and not to be.

What is oxytocin?

Oxytocin is both a hormone (acting in the bloodstream) and a neurotransmitter (acting in the brain).

  •  It is found in the posterior pituitary gland, which is part of the primitive brain.  The primitive part of the brain is what we share with mammals.  The neocortex or ‘new brain’ is highly developed in humans and is where inhibitions during birth are registered.

Social and emotional connections

  • Oxytocin is important for empathy.
  • Weddings cause the release of oxytocin; the guests feel connected to the new couple- this is important in evolution and is needed to reproduce to perpetuate the human race.
  • Social media increases oxytocin release due to the instant feeling of connection with others.
  • Oxytocin may help with shyness.

Charity and Prayer

  • Oxytocin increases generosity donations to charity by 50% (Zak).
  • People with autism have shown to have low levels of oxytocin.
  • It may have antidepressant benefits.
  • Oxytocin is also released with nurturing touch, dance, prayer and meditation.
  • Complex social and political issues could be solved by raising people's normal levels of oxytocin.
  • Neuroeconomist Paul Zak described oxytocin as the chemical of trustworthiness in relation to commerce and suggested it could help to eradicate poverty!

How does it work?

Regarded as a ‘shy hormone’ it is released most readily in conditions that mimic those that mammals exhibit such as warmth, darkness, quiet and unobserved.

  • The fact that it is found entirely unchanged chemically in all species of mammals shows how vital it is for evolution.
  • Baseline levels are near 0. (I.e. it is not freely circulating).  It needs a stimulus to be released.
  • It is most effective when released rhythmically and pulsing
  • Release of oxytocin is threatened by fear and stress.
  • Originally thought of as a ‘woman’s hormone’, it is actually released by both men and women during lovemaking.

What is its role in birth and the postpartum period?

  • It is a uterotonic i.e. it causes the uterus to contract.
  • Helps stop bleeding- important to prevent postpartum haemorrhage.
  • In the third stage, the new mother reaps the rewards of her labour.  She experiences peak levels of oxytocin. Skin-to-skin contact and the baby’s first attempts to breast-feed further raise maternal oxytocin levels.
  • Helps expel the placenta.
  • Stimulates milk ejection reflex.
  • Increases bonding- to ensure a mother’s care and protection, and thus the baby’s survival.

Effect of epidurals on oxytocin

  • Epidurals lower the mother’s production of oxytocin, or stop its normal rise during labour.
  • Epidurals also obliterate the maternal oxytocin peak that occurs at birth, which catalyses the final powerful contractions of labour and helps mother and baby to fall in love at first meeting (Buckley).

Oxytocin and the environment

UTS Professor Maralyn Foureur, one of the authors of ‘Birth Territory and Midwifery Guardianship’ talks about the impact of oxytocin;

"The human body constantly adjusts to cues from its surrounding environment and the way we interpret our environment is through our senses. What we see, hear, taste, touch and smell triggers off a cascade of brain chemicals that control every body state and the major contributor to all this activity is oxytocin.”

In a safe and nurturing environment, there is a flood of oxytocin.  However when the surroundings makes us anxious, oxytocin is shut down, which impedes birth.  Here’s how doulas can create intimacy in the birthing room that supports the release of oxytocin;

How a doula can facilitate oxytocin release

  • Acknowledge that you are a known factor in an environment of unfamiliarity, don’t underestimate the positive impact of a continuous figure.
  • Dim the lights or use an eye mask.
  • Speak softly.
  • Soothing music.
  • Use as few words to communicate as possible (doing so allows the woman to access her primitive brain rather than activate her neocortex where analysis and higher levels of thinking occur).
  • Visualization allowing her to deepen her inner awareness and phase out the impact of the surroundings.
  • Gentle touch/ massage.

For more information on this fascinating substance, you can explore the following resources;

Birth Territory and Midwifery Guardianship: Theory for Practice, Education and Research, Kathleen Fahey, Maralyn Foureur, Carolyn Hastie 2008.

Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering: A Doctor’s Guide to Natural Childbirth and Gentle Early Parenting Choices (Sarah J Buckley MD, Celestial Arts, 2009).

The Scientification of Love, Michel Odent, Free Association Books 2001.

The Oxytocin Factor - tapping the hormone of calm, love and healing, by Kerstin Uvnas Moberg, Pinter and Martin 2011.

TED talk with neuroeconomist Paul Zak on trust, morality and oxytocin