What Is Oxytocin And What Is Its Role In Childbirth?
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What Is Oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a hormone specific to mammals, whose popularity grows as new studies and research reveal the essential role that this hormone plays in human behavior: it develops maternal feelings, stimulates the rapprochement between 2 people and supports relationships between partners, family, friends, and so on. Due to these effects, oxytocin is rightly considered the physiological element that makes us human.
The Production and Release of Oxytocin
Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus and released into the blood by the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland as a result of the increased level of excitation of nerve cells. In women, a significant amount of oxytocin is secreted when birth is triggered, as well as after childbirth during breastfeeding.
The mechanism and control of the production of this hormone is one of positive feedback, meaning that while the secretion of the hormone stimulates the brain at the same time to produce even more oxytocin. The process stop by itself when there`s no need of oxytocin. For instance, when the contractions of labor start, oxytocin starts to be secreted, which in turn stimulates the contractions to become even stronger and causes a greater production of oxytocin. Once the baby is born, the process ends.
A longitudinal study published a few years ago, and conducted on 80 couples who had one child, focused on the role oxytocin plays when fathers are concerned. The oxytocin level of the parents was measured immediately after birth, at 6 weeks and 6 months, and the results that the researchers obtained were amazing: there wasn`t any significant difference between the level of oxytocin of mothers and fathers. In other words, besides birth and lactation that occurs in women, there are other stimuli that cause oxytocin. Because the levels of oxytocin were similar between spouses, the researchers found that the process involved social and hormonal factors.
Subsequent studies have shown that in addition to birth, breastfeeding and relationship with the child, oxytocin is secreted by the brain in a lot of social situations where we are, both positive and negative: when we make friends, when we fall in love and live an orgasm, but also when we are jealous or envious of anyone. Moreover, more recent research have shown that after the confrontation with the “social stress,” the level of oxytocin increases; for instance, women who didn`t had positive relationships with their previous partners have a degree of oxytocin more increased that those who didn`t confronted with such difficulties.
The assumption made by specialists to explain the secretion of oxytocin in both negative and positive cases, refers to the double role this hormone plays in our mental and social functions: it stimulates us to look for better relationships when we deal with pain and stress, and it increases our state of well being when we maintain a lasting bond with someone.
The Role and Importance of Oxytocin
Oxytocin plays an important role for both men and women, but some aspects and effects are differentiated in 2 categories.
As we mentioned above, oxytocin is essential for childbirth. This hormone stimulates the uterine contractions, sometimes being administered artificially to induce labor or make the contractions stronger. At the same time, oxytocin helps the mother recover from childbirth and deforms the memories about the pain suffered during delivery, so this may explain why some women choose to go through labor with the second or third pregnancy. Oxytocin is also the one helping with the connection between mother and child, while supporting the maternal instinct and behavior. Breastfeeding wouldn`t be possible without this hormone, as oxytocin helps breast milk flow through and be released by the nipple. Oxytocin is transmitted to the baby through breast milk.
Before childbirth, the oxytocin from the mother`s blood passes through the placenta and reaches the fetus`s brain, where it acts on the neurotransmitter GABA, inhibiting the cortical activity during childbirth and thus protecting the brain from a possible oxygen deprivation.
Although the purpose of this article is how this hormone behaves in women, we should take into consideration how it behaves in men as well so we can better understand it.
Although produced in a larger amount in women, oxytocin plays an important role in men as well. From the physiological and anatomical point of view, it helps in the production of testosterone in the testicles and also supports the movement of sperm.
A recent study, published a while back by a team of researchers from China and Germany, focused on the relationship between oxytocin and monogamy, a behavior encountered in very few mammals. The participants (40 men involved in a long-term relationship) received photos of their partners and other unknown women to compare. At this time, the men received a nasal spray that contained oxytocin, and then received a placebo spray.
A magnetic resonance brain scan showed that when participants received a dose of oxytocin in the brain, there was a reward center activated, and their partners were perceived as more attractive than other women. In a subsequent test, the participants compared the images of known women (colleagues, friends, etc) with unknown women, but this time the familiarity didn`t activated the reward center in the brain anymore. In other words, oxytocin supports the attractiveness and fidelity only to couples in a lasting love relationship, strengthening their bond.
Oxytocin is considered the hormones that is at the basis of social relations between people, and some clues of research suggest that it may be the one causing the feeling of trust between people, but also of fidelity between the partners of a couple. For instance, in experiments in which the participants were trained in various games and were able to work together or not, those who receive an amount of oxytocin tended to have more confidence in their playing partner. – More info!
It`s believed that oxytocin is also involved in the development of all positive feelings toward others, reducing shyness and fear, increasing generosity and empathy.
Both in women and men, oxytocin is the one that supports, next to dopamine and neropinephrine, the behavior between the members of a couple, promoting intimacy and attachment. Oxytocin is that one supporting sexual attraction, engaging in intercourse, sexual excitement and orgasm occurrence; hence, the name given to oxytocin – the “love hormone.”
Lab studies performed on rodents identified the existence of oxytocin and oxytocin receptors in the heart, which experts believe could be an indication of the involvement of this hormone in the heart development and cellular differentiation of the organ (prenatal). – Read this!
In a study in which women and men of ages between 20 and 37 years old took part, half of them received a dose of oxytocin, while the other half received a placebo treatment. Then they were asked to look at a few videos with social interactions. It was required to indentify the level of intimacy, friendship and completion between actors, based on the verbal and non-verbal language. Oxytocin increased the ability of interpreting the social interactions of both genders, but it seems that women find it easier to identify friendship between people, while men find it easier to identify competition.
What Imbalances Can Oxytocin Produce?
Low Levels of Oxytocin
In women, a low level of oxytocin may prevent milk ejection reflex and lead to breastfeeding failure. From the physical point of view, there are no other known consequences of a low level of oxytocin.
Regarding mental point of view, it`s considered that there is some correlation between low levels of oxytocin and depressive disorders, and those from the autism spectrum. In this case, it`s required an additional investigation because these assumptions aren`t yet scientifically supported.
High Levels of Oxytocin
It`s not known exactly what happens in the organism when the level of oxytocin is very high. Correlational studies have shown that there is a link between a high level of oxytocin and benign prostatic hyperplasia in men. But more research is needed in this matter.
On the other hand, the studies made so far outlined that despite the positive effects that oxytocin has on positive feelings and relationships between people, there`s a negative side to this hormone. In experimental studies in which participants were administered an amount of oxytocin, it was noticed that they developed negative feelings, like envy or greed, and some researchers are concerned about the possibility of others, like anger or increased violence. Another example is the case of a study in which participants engaged in a game of confidence, when the participants who inhaled oxytocin tended to lie their partners.
Further research is required to see exactly what consequences there are from the administration of oxytocin, especially if you want to use this hormone in the treatment of mental disordes.
These positive and negative results draw attention to the complexity of oxytocin and the fact that there are numerous issues that need to be discovered to fully understand its way of action and its implications for human behavior.