Oxytocin: the Hormone of Trust and Community
You might already know that oxytocin plays a major role in the process of childbirth and breastfeeding. This birth-related hormone is responsible for the uterus pulling itself up to thicken the fundus so that the baby can be released. In other words, oxytocin contracts the uterus. When labor is undisturbed, oxytocin will flood the laboring woman’s body with a euphoric feeling while decreasing stress hormones. After labor, oxytocin helps with the let-down of the mother’s breast milk, as well as facilitate mother-baby bonding.
But, it’s even more nuanced than that.
Oxytocin is the body’s messenger of love, and that means a lot. It is produced in the hypothalamus and released via the pituitary gland. It flows through the blood of humans when they feel connected, intimate, and safe. Whether you are in your lover’s arms, nursing your newborn infant, or laughing with your best friend, your body releases oxytocin, which allows you to deepen your connection to those around you. Under its influence, we might experience the feeling that we often describe as love. What is that sweet restful feeling after an orgasm? What is that warm rush mothers get while breastfeeding? Or the need to hold your baby when you hear her cry? It’s oxytocin!
Scientists have identified oxytocin as having a major role in our ability to build community and form morality, all based on a unique transaction that happens between humans: TRUST. What’s really interesting about trust and oxytocin is that it’s largely built upon non-verbal cues and it’s a two way street. Oxytocin allows us to read another person’s non-verbal cues and decide whether we trust them and discern whether they trust us. If someone displays cues that they don’t trust us, our oxytocin lowers. Fortunately, if someone lets us know they trust us, that’s the foundation for a good relationship and our oxytocin flows. Oxytocin is literally the hormonal building block for relationships, family and community.
Thus, where we give birth and who we invite into the birth room affect our oxytocin levels, which in turn affect our experience of childbirth. For instance, if your provider looks at you while grimacing and says, “You’re making a baby that is too big for your body, we’ll need to talk about scheduling an induction or cesarean”, this will decrease your oxytocin levels. At the core of this statement, your provider is expressing distrust in your body’s ability to birth your baby. In reaction, your oxytocin production decreases and you might not trust your provider, or worse, your body. This additional stress might even affect your ability to spontaneously go into labor. On the other hand, when your midwife smiles at you and says, “Your body is perfect and your baby is perfect,” your oxytocin production surges. You build an intimate relationship that supports spontaneous labor that feels manageable and secure.
During birth, oxytocin aides in contracting your uterus, which allows your womb to pull up so that your baby can enter your birth canal and be born. The closer a laboring woman gets to having a baby, the stronger her contractions are, and the more oxytocin she has in her body. Her sensitivity to non-verbal cues is heightened, and the need for trust is even more crucial.
As support people, it is paramount to think of the laboring woman as having super human skills in reading non-verbal cues. Best intentions aside, what we tell her non-verbally affects her body and emotions. A scowling provider, too many interruptions or observers, or a partner who is jittery will have a profound impact on the progress of labor. When stressed, the laboring woman’s body will decrease her oxytocin production. In contrast, think of the woman who hears, “You are doing beautifully,” or “Take your time”, or sees her doula smiling from the corner of the room. She will feel her contractions strengthen and her euphoria surge. If she feels her partner’s arms embracing her while she sways in the candle lit room, she feel protected and safe and allowed to walk towards the intensity of birth. When her vocalizations are met with knowing nods, and her uncomfortability is met with enthusiasm, she can feel trust at the core of her experience. In turn, trust and connection will protect her body and her baby as her labor becomes stronger, and her contractions become longer and closer together. Since having longer, stronger and closer contractions is the only way to have your baby, why not have them from a place of euphoria?
Sexuality can teach us a lot about birth, the dance between intensity and euphoria, welcoming the peak of the experience, the need for trust, connection and consent. An orgasm is physiologically and emotionally very similar to that of a contraction. In both, you will find the need to relax, release, and allow them to surge through you on the bridge that links the mind and body. That bridge is built from the hormones of labor, particularly oxytocin.
Sports research shows that emotional transference, when one person’s emotions are redirected to another’s emotions through non-verbal cues, is oxytocin induced. Sports research also shows us that oxytocin increases under physical activity. The euphoric feeling experienced from playing with a team that you trust is real, and oxytocin allows players to build a cohesive unit based on positive emotions that enhance their game.
It’s not just where or with whom we birth that will determine our ability to get our oxytocin going. Culturally, we have a relationship that is suspicious of the woman’s body and her ability to move through her biological initiations like menstruation, birth or menopause with ease and joy. At large, we often go to places to birth our babies that we associate with sickness and death with emergencies that feel out of our control (and all our cultural confusion over those normal experiences). Often, due to cultural narratives that we inherit, we feel shame, fear and distrust around our bodies, gender or sex. Sometimes, our ability to create oxytocin is hindered by past traumatic experiences, mental health or autoimmune disorders.
What I really want you to know about oxytocin is that oxytocin allows you to fall in love with your newborn and understand all of his non-verbal cues. It’s at the core of our first human experience: having our needs met by our family. When the oxytocin cycle is interrupted, such as when synthetic oxytocin (Pitocin) is given to the laboring woman, we see Moms who might struggle with milk production, postpartum depression, and are challenged to read their little one’s non-verbal cues. Synthetic hormones can decrease or even turn off our naturally producing hormones. This affects not only mothers and babies, but also all of the mother’s relationships. We know that medical interventions can be life saving, and sometimes, we must take risks like introducing Pitocin into the birth experience. If we do, we must determine if it is medically necessary so that you can trust the intervention. That’s worth repeating: to trust the intervention through the process of informed consent. We must be mindfully aware of all the ways we can strengthen our oxytocin experience during the intervention and afterwards. Protecting the hormonal loop is one of the greatest steps that we can take to protect the human experience and all that it has to offer: safety, connection, trust and love.
What can we do before, during and after birth to get oxytocin going? This is my go-to list, but feel free to add your own to it.
1. Choose a birth team and location that you trust, and talk to them about what makes you feel safe and connected.
2. Take a childbirth class out of the hospital that focuses on the mind~body connection, advocacy and evidence based birth practices.
3. Hug, laugh and take a walk with a trusted friend.
4. Participate in Community: attend a rally for a cause you believe in, go to a hip-hop show or the opera, sit with others in the presence of the divine, join a community garden or neighborhood project. Connect.
5. Meditate, practice yoga, get acupuncture.
6. Massage, make love, masturbate, feel sexy~ but only if you want to, otherwise it won’t work!
7. Understand informed consent and be prepared to advocate for it- Childbirth Connection is a great resource for the legal rights of the childbearing woman.
8. Ask your birth partner to become educated about the hormones of birth and their unique role in protecting your birth experience.
9. Sing, Dance, Chant, Make Art; cultivate your creativity without inhibition!
10. A daily practice of Positive Birth Affirmations: I trust myself, I trust my body, I trust my baby.
11. Hold your baby, nurse your baby, and look into her eyes. Tell her that you love her, and let her know that you know that she loves you, too. Repeat, repeat, to infinity, repeat.
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****I am not a medical professional. The information offered here is backed by trusted institutions but the overall voice of this blog piece is purely a result of my experience and observation. In other words, this is an opinion piece. If you are not currently in an exercise program cleared by a doctor, I highly recommend you consult your medical practitioner before engaging in any physical activity especially if you are pregnant****
Have you been there… that song comes on that gets you amped and you just let it go across those kitchen tiles, the sidewalk, wherever you are? Professional or not, for the life of me I cannot fathom someone who can resist the urge to at least tap it out when that song that slays your being hits your ears. Even my grandfather gets that toe a-going when music is on. Dancing holds the ability to waltz across cultures and communicate with movement. It is something that binds humans around the globe and walks hand in hand with music. Throughout history, humans have used dance and music to express, celebrate, pray, evoke, and convey. Today, we not only recognize dance as an art or ceremony but as a physical exercise that improves the health of your mind, body, and spirit. For pregnancy, dance seems to be one of the more perfect forms of exercise for you no matter your preference or ability as it can be tailor fit to suit your needs and it can plain make you smile.
I have heard commentary floating around that goes on about pregnancy being a “condition” and “intense” exercise like dance is better reserved for the postpartum period when you are cleared for strenuous activity and want to “bounce back”. On the contrary, dance classes range from being very gentle to challenging with every level in between. There is some serious research that disputes not only the condition aspect but the activity involvement as well. It all backs my opinion that dance is a great way to stay healthy and fit while pregnant and can ease your recovery time after. While it may be important for you to get back to normal after birth, I believe it’s more important to reap those benefits of staying fit during pregnancy and then ease back into the activity and let your core and pelvic area heal.
So, just why is dance so great for you when you have a bump? Let’s leap into my favorite top five facts.
Number One: Dancing Improves Mood and Reduces Stress
A Berkeley University of California wellness article, states that dancing has been shown to significantly reduce depression, anxiety, and stress. This impacts your blood pressure and decreases adrenaline. The love and bonding hormone oxytocin is released into the system paving the way for not only happiness but an easier labor and delivery in the future. Anytime you exercise this happens, but according to a study in PubMed, dance not only reduced symptoms of depression but it also staggeringly cut down on stress, even more than a mindful meditation session. During pregnancy, women need all the support they can get to combat the body changes and hormone flooding that can greatly affect your stress level.
Number Two: Dance Gives You Confidence
Being a human in modern society, let alone a pregnant human, means we struggle with self-image from time to time. Dance can generate confidence by boosting self-esteem, body image, coping ability, and an overall sense of well-being with the long-lasting benefits. The more confidence you have overall the more confidant you will be while laboring.
Number Three: Dancing Improves Total Body Health Starting with the Heart and Lungs
Anytime you engage in aerobic activity your heart and lungs reap massive benefits. During pregnancy, your organs are working overtime to keep up with producing a tiny person(s). Improving the efficiency of the organs in charge of circulation and respiration along with a healthy diet really is the cornerstone to ensuring a more balanced and healthy body. The more efficiently the circulatory and respiratory systems work the easier it is on your body’s ability to create life.
Number Four: Dance Improves Muscle Tone and Flexibility
On the big day, you will need every ounce of strength, stamina, and openness you can muster. Dancing works to engage muscles while your balance and body weight shifts around forcing the muscles to adapt to the rhythmic changes. The very act of dancing improves your strength and suppleness in areas you didn’t know existed before and line up with muscles you need to not only carry your young one inside the womb but outside as well.
Number 5: Dance Provides Exercises that Focus on the Hips and Pelvic Area
When baby makes their debut, one area that is getting a significant metamorphosis is the hip and pelvic structure. Ensuring that the joints are prepared in time for birth can make a pretty big difference in the length and intensity of your labor and provide you versatility in laboring positions. Certain movements in dance are really lubricating and strengthening for your pelvic area. Pair this activity with maintaining optimal levels of hydration and a great diet and you’ve got it made for birth.
Now whether it has been as a student, a teacher in the studio, at the gym, in the club, or even in my own living room, I have never been very good at going too long without dancing. Dance has always been a huge part of my life so it was no question that when we became pregnant with our daughter I would continue to head to Zumba and yoga class. I didn’t suffer from as much brain fog, as much anxiety, or fatigue and my labor was swift and easy compared to my son’s which ended in an emergency cesarean section. I also feel like it helped me battle the bouts of depression after baby that threaten to turn into the more series postpartum depression. Dance was beneficial for me before, during, and after the conception and birth of our daughter and I know I am not alone in this experience.
I applaud you if you are taking the steps to be healthy and fit during pregnancy whatever that entails. If morning sickness or other conditions have you bed bound I salute you as well for you are still forming a tiny human in your womb and deserve so much respect. If you are interested in local classes to take in your area while pregnant get on that search bar or head to your full-service gym. Speak with the instructors find out what classes would suit you best for whatever level you are. If you are local to the Sonoma County area feel free to contact me by email and I’d be happy to point you in the direction of some movement magic. Better yet come and check out our next Friend of Thrive Event “Dance for Baby Bumps” on July 30th from 6-9pm at Fierce Fitness in Santa Rosa and help us raise money for families seeking midwifery care and out of hospital birth but cannot afford it. Follow the details on the event flyer image for details.
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