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What Is The Role Of Oxytocin In Pregnancy?

Oxytocin is also known as the love hormone, because the more profound is the relationship, the more increased is the level of oxytocin. Manifestations of careness, gentle touches and hugs determine this increase of oxytocin, the hormone being secreted when the 2 lovers kiss and touch in a lovable manner.

What Is The Role Of Oxytocin In Pregnancy

Placing the baby at the breast immediately after birth is also a great way to increase the level of oxytocin. Doctors say that an important role in the increased levels of this hormone is played by the immediate bonding between the mother and baby, but also by skin contact or shared eyesight.

The human organism adapts constantly to the environment through its senses. What we hear, see, touch, taste and smell triggers a cascade of chemicals in the brain that control each organ in our body. This hormone has some sort of contribution to this activity as well.

When women who went through labor are concerned, the oxytocin`s name leads them with the thought to the substance that causes those contractions and leads to dilation. They aren`t wrong! We talk about the same hormone which, among a role in birth, breastfeeding and the increased of bond between the mother and her child, also has a role of bonding a couple.

We all secrete it, meaning our hypothalamus, during and after a sexual contact. And thanks to him, depending on various points of view, we manage to love and trust our partner – little by little.

Table of Contents

What Is Oxytocin?

Oxytocin is a hormone secreted by the pituitary gland, which has a role in the uterine contraction during labor, stimulating the secretion and releasing milk in the mammary gland when the woman holds her baby in her arms, offering her a positive state.

Studies have proven that this hormone needs “intimacy” to manifest itself and have beneficial effects on a woman who is in labor, delivers or breastfeeds. That`s why, a woman who just gave birth and is breastfeeding, will release breast milk a lot more easily if she`ll breastfeed her baby in a room with less light, where is just her and her baby, without interruption or other external factors.

Production & 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 this hormone 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 the hormone. 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 this hormone 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 hormone more increased that those who didn`t confronted with such difficulties.

The assumption made by specialists to explain the secretion of hormone 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.

Role & Importance of Oxytocin

Oxytocin plays an important role for both men and women, but some aspects and effects are differentiated in 2 categories.

In Women

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, 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.

In Men

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, was focused on the relationship between this hormone 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 the hormone 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.

Both Genders

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 this particular hormone 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, this specific hormone 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 Increases Oxytocin?

A recent study have shown the amazing impact that warm water has on women who just had their labor slowed down. British researchers have proven that labor in warm water have more chances to lead to a normal birth without a medical intervention. “Labor in water under the supervision of a midwife can be an option for the slow progress of labor, reducing the need of any intervention and offering an alternative option in managing pain” is the conclusion of the study.

On the other hand, the well known obstetrician Michel Odent names this amazing answer as “releasing the breaks,” which means that once the body is heated by water, it releases endorphins that make the pain go away and oxytocin starts flowing again.

Trying to get rid of the pain is a good way to increase the chance of giving birth naturally. Giving birth with laughing gas, also known as inhalation analgesia, also has a calming effect on the pregnant woman. It has the advantage of inducing a state of well-being and the patient can administer it as often as she feels the contraction.

What Imbalances Can Oxytocin Produce?

Low Levels of Oxytocin

In women, a low level of our hormone 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 this hormone 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 this particular hormone 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.

Can Oxytocin Make You Depressed?

It turns out that oxytocin has 2 faces. Although it has long been known as positive and warm hormone, promoting feelings of social bonding and love, it also been tasted as an anti-anxiety medication. A new Northwestern Medicine research outlines that this hormone can lead to emotional pain as well. The discovery is very important as chronic social stress is among the most important causes of depression or anxiety, while positive social interactions increase emotional health. The research was performed in mice, so may only be particularly relevant when humans are concerned because this hormone is for the moment being tested as an anti-anxiety medication in a few clinical trials.

What Are the Side Effects of Oxytocin?

Pitocin, which is an oxytocin injection, is a natural hormone which leads to uterine contractions and is used to induce labor when needed, and also strengthen contractions during delivery, control bleeding after birth and even induce abortion. Some of the most frequent side effects include:

  • Irritation or redness around the injection location.
  • Nausea & vomiting.
  • Abdominal pain & cramping. – Find out more!
  • Memory issues.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • The contractions are more frequent and more intense.
  • Sinus pain.

Talk to your doctor if you experience any severe side effects, such as:

  • Uneven heart rate.
  • Headache.
  • Severe weakness.
  • Feeling unsteady.
  • Excessive bleeding after birth.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Muscle cramps.
  • Severe vomiting.
  • Loss of coordination.
  • Shallow breathing.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Fainting,
Image courtesy of frontiersin.org

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