Birth Hormones: The Agony And Ecstasy
An Excerpt From Natural Pregnancy
When our ancestors lived in villages, many women would have been at births, or at least have been familiar with the process. As the birth world became more medicalized and less familial (and less familiar), for many women the only exposure to childbirth are those portrayed by the media which consists of a caricature of a laboring woman out of control, tethered to the bed in stirrups, screaming in agony.
However, for many natural birth experts, an undisturbed birth is viewed as an ecstatic experience, where pleasure and pain are but two sides of the same coin. There are various adjectives to describe childbirth, but the word ecstatic is a far cry from the television version. We have been brainwashed into believing that birth is a horribly painful experience which needs to be treated as a medical emergency waiting to happen rather than as a normal process.
According to many natural birth experts, birth can be a pleasurable experience. When a woman is allowed the opportunity to birth in a secure and uninterrupted place, the possibility for transforming a painful experience into a euphoric one can unfold. According to Dr. Sarah Buckley, “Giving birth in ecstasy: this is our birthright and our body’s intent. Mother Nature, in her wisdom, prescribes birthing hormones that take us outside our usual state so that we can be transformed on every level as we enter motherhood. This exquisite hormonal orchestration unfolds optimally when birth is undisturbed, enhancing safety for both mother and baby.”
For many people, ecstasy conjures up references to sexuality or a higher state from drugs or the spiritual realm—an out of this world feeling. These comments are not unusual following an undisturbed labor as many women report a feeling that is indescribable.
Known to be one of the best kept secrets about birth, up to 21 percent of women surveyed had experienced an orgasm during childbirth. It is not uncommon to witness caresses, kisses, and deep affection between partners during labor. According to Dr. Christiane Northrup, birth is a sensual experience and the same organs and intricate hormonal system responsible for delivery of the baby were the ones present at conception nine months earlier. Because of the parallels, when possible, the birthing space should be similar to the lovemaking one: intimate, private, sacred, and serene.
Birth Hormones: The Agony and Ecstasy
The limbic system is part of the mammalian brain which controls behaviors related to emotions, survival, and sexual behavior. According to Dr. Michel Odent, hormones are secreted from this evolutionary primitive brain structure known as the love cocktail: oxytocin, beta endorphins, adrenaline, and prolactin. These hormones affect the body as well as behavior, and play a large role in humankind.
Oxytocin: The Cuddle Hormone. Oxytocin, known as the cuddle hormone, is responsible for romantic feelings, love, trust, and monogamy, as well as the mother-child bond. Released from the pituitary gland in the brain, it plays an important role in orgasm for both sexes; and birth it helps with dilation of the cervix, aids in labor and delivery of baby and placenta, and controls bleeding in the postpartum period. During breastfeeding it also plays a role in the “let down” of milk. Oxytocin is one of the hormones responsible for the elation mother can experience following birth as she touches and sees her baby for the first time. Research has shown that children who are autistic have lower levels of oxytocin.
Endorphins: The Hormonal Pain Killer. Endorphins, also produced by the pituitary gland, resemble opiates and work as a natural analgesic. Endorphins provide us with a feeling of well-being and pleasure that is released during such experiences as strenuous exercise, pain, and orgasm. The release of this natural morphine-like hormone helps to ease a mother’s pain threshold while giving birth. In effect, the release of beta endorphins during childbirth is nature’s pain medication, and one that does not deleteriously affect mother or baby. During childbirth the beta endorphins allow the mother to be transformed, altering her state of consciousness and allowing her to transcend the pain and discomfort. It is not uncommon for women to say afterward that they felt as if they were on another planet, comments similar to being on opiates.
Adrenaline (Epinephrine): The Fight or Flight Response. Adrenaline and noradrenaline (epinephrine and norepinephrine), known as the catecholamines (CA), are secreted by the adrenal gland above the kidneys. They regulate heart rate, blood flow, and respiration. This hormone is secreted in situations that require a fight or flight response. From drinking coffee to thrill-seeking activities, there are people known as “adrenaline junkies” who savor the rush. Adrenaline is also released in stressful situations, such as during road rage in a traffic jam. In nature, when a laboring animal in the wild senses danger, adrenaline is secreted, and it stops her contractions allowing her to flee to a safe place. In delivery, there is a normal CA surge released at the end of labor, called the fetal ejection reflex. It is also secreted by the infant in preparing the lungs for breathing and increasing blood flow, all of which support survival. The CA surge also accounts for the initial alert time that occurs at birth, allowing for bonding between mother and baby. On the other hand, when a woman does not feel protected or safe, too much is secreted. When this occurs, high CA levels inhibit oxytocin which can lead to prolonged labor or can shut down labor altogether.
Prolactin: The Mothering Hormone. Prolactin, the breastfeeding hormone, begins its production during pregnancy. Also known as the mothering hormone, prolactin also aids with nesting, which prepares for the bonding between mother and baby. Especially in the first few months of life, it helps mother with relaxation, sleep, and patience.
From a chicken laying an egg to a horse birthing its foal, we can learn from other species. A birthing animal needs a quiet secluded space. She must be free of unnecessary interruptions and able to move in various positions, as she feels. So it is with humans. A woman in labor is literally opening herself to new life. She is vulnerable and needs to feel safe, with privacy, to labor. When relaxed, her cervix opens. Activities such as the drive to the hospital, the admission process, and visits from nurses and doctor can trigger the release of adrenaline and close the cervix, thus impeding the birth process. When possible, it is best for the mother to be proactive and address any concerns ahead of time, which may help diminish her anticipation. For some women, taking the hospital tour and doing admission paperwork beforehand may help minimize undue stress during labor.
The medical model of care can interfere with the normal flow of birth hormones. For this reason, the use of standard medications during labor and delivery are meant to be reserved for extreme conditions and medical emergencies. When used for emergencies, many lives have been saved. However, success has also led to excessive use of interventions such as medications. The medical model uses interventions for most women, most of whom are not considered high risk. Thus, it creates a situation of a viscous cycle in which the interventions necessitate the need for more interventions. Ultimately it becomes a slippery slope, drastically changing a woman’s birth plan for a natural and unmedicated birth.