For most people, the term "oxytocin" is not new. The Love Hormone, as it is often called. It makes you feel happy and relaxed, calm and confident. And yes, lovey. It is no surprise then that this hormone takes the lead during labour and birth. All of the feelings that it elicits aid in the natural progression of labour. When released from the pituitary gland, it travels through the bloodstream, to the uterus (which is a muscle), and tells it to contract. This pressure pushes down on baby, nudging baby's head against the cervix, which causes it to thin and open (effacement and dilation, respectively). As the baby is putting more and more pressure on the cervix, oxytocin is once again released into the bloodstream, repeating the cycle. What makes oxytocin even more amazing is the fact that it also has a tendency to lessen your experience of discomfort, pressure, tightening, or pain. Naturally occuring oxytocin actually causes labour and makes it more manageable! This clearly grants it Super Hormone status. Want to help this Super Hormone do its best work? Here are the top four ways to support your body's natural production of oxytocin
1. Physical contact during labour
Given its nickname, it is no surprise that you can increase oxytocin levels with physical, loving contact. Oxytocin production can be stimulated through various types of sensory stimulation, such as a caring and reassuring hand on a back or shoulder, Light Touch Massage, hand holding, and kissing. You may have heard that dancing during labour is encouraged, as it can help baby wiggle their way down the birth canal. Dancing also makes us feel good! Try busting a move to your favourite song and not cracking a smile! Those happy feelings bring on a more positive outlook on your experience, and also - you guessed it - help stimulate that wonderful hormone. Not only do these physical elements cause a topical sensation which stimulates production at a base level, but they also create a feeling of safety, love, and happiness
There is no underestimating the power of the mind when it comes to labour and birth. Your relaxed, calm, confident state will allow your physiological processes to fulfill their very important roles - this includes the production of oxytocin. Working on your mental preparedness during pregnancy is imperative. Practice self-care, physically and emotionally. Take a prenatal fitness class, eat well, and know you are doing all you can to prepare your body to grow and birth your baby in the best way you can. Take the time to work through any negative feelings you may have (stress, fear, anxiety) about labour, birth, or transitioning to parenthood. Meditate, breathe, visualize your positive birth, recite affirmations. Begin to focus on the joy and the excitement. Increase your feeling of control and empowerment by educating yourself. All of these things will help you feel relaxed in the moment, and as that moment approaches. This will help get and keep that oxytocin flowing!
3. Food and Drink
This is two-fold. First, you should focus on fueling your body properly and giving it the care and love through nutrition that it needs. Labour and birth is hardwork, and your uterus is a very hardworking muscle. Let's help it out by staying hydrated and consuming healthy snacks throughout labour. Treat your body well, and it will most likely reciprocate. Second, choose foods that could stimulate oxytocin production. Yes, they exist! While all food can potentially have an oxytocin-boosting effect based on your enjoyment of the experience, apples and chocolate are two that can specifically bring on this reaction. Apples can give estrogen levels a kick, which in turn increases oxytocin, while chocolate works the same way with dopamine (NOTE: there are other foods that increase estrogen levels such as wheat, pasta, tomatoes, and garlic, but these are very rarely consumed by labouring women. Almost all would like to eat chocolate!)
Just like food can work to create collaborating hormones, so can environmental elements, such as lighting. Melatonin, which is naturally produced by dim lighting, quiet surroundings, and a calm atmosphere, boosts oxytocin levels. For this reason, lighting cannot be underestimated during your labour and birth. Shut the blinds, turn off the lights, and get those candles lit. You'll feel relaxed and comfortable in no time, and your natural hormonal processes will work hard to get things going. Keep this going regardless of being at home or at the hospital, and also after baby has been born. You need that continued oxytocin to (1) help make progesterone, which will stimulate lactation and (2) to encourage your uterus to continue to contract to expell the placenta, control bleeding, and reduce to its pre-pregnancy size.
Your body's ability to naturally create this wonderful hormone is pretty amazing. It is hardworking and multifaceted. It causes contractions, increases pain threshold, reuces anxiety and blood pressure, and promotes lactation and healing. Your body knows how to make it, but you can also take control of your experience by giving it a helping hand. Use this knowledge to become Oxytocin's trusty sidekick. And although I don't see a comic book or movie franchise being created based on Super Hormone, I have to say - I think you two make a pretty dynamic duo