Understanding Your Powerful Birthing Hormones by Gina Potts
8 July 2017
There are several hormones that play a significant role during pregnancy, labour and birth. These include Oxytocin and Endorphins, two of our most powerful, feel-good hormones.
Oxytocin is a powerful hormone, which is known as the love hormone. The word oxytocin derives from Greek, and means ‘quick birth’. Oxytocin is known for having a significant role in sexual reproduction, especially childbirth. It facilitates birth (cervical dilation and surges/contractions), maternal bonding and, due to stimulation of the nipples, breastfeeding (let-down reflex). Oxytocin is released when orgasm is experienced, and when one experiences various kinds of physical contact with others, including massage, hugging, kissing and even shaking hands. And, when we take a deep breath, oxytocin is released when we exhale, especially a slow, long exhalation. The body’s release of oxytocin helps to reduce anxiety and helps one feel more relaxed, content and secure. This is why it is key to your hypnobirthing practice, and you are taught on a hypnobirthing course various things to help your body’s ability to produce oxytocin: breathing, relaxation, light touch massage, etc.
Endorphins are another powerful hormone, and is known as a natural pain killer. Their chemical structure resembles that of opiates (morphine-based drugs) and endorphins therefore are the body’s own way of producing analgesic responses and feelings of well-being. Endorphins are released when we take exercise, experience excitement, feel pain, consume spicy food and a variety of other ways. In pregnancy, endorphin levels are raised, which is triggered by the presence of the placenta, and is said to assist in increasing the allocation of nutrients to the placenta to nourish the developing fetus. In terms of pain relieving attributes, a release of endorphins prevents nerve cells from sending pain signals via nerve impulses up the spinal cord to the brain. Techniques such as light touch massage and deep relaxation taught on the course help the body maximize its production of endorphins during labour and birth, thus minimizing any pain sensations.
The presence of the above hormones inhibits the body’s ability to produce adrenalin, which needs to be minimized during labour and birth.
Adrenaline is responsible for the body’s instinctive fear responses. Adrenaline is, of course, useful to the body at appropriate times, for example, when we need to quickly get out of danger, if we are running a race or for a bus, or working to an important deadline. However, the adrenaline rush that comes with a fear response has no place in birth. The body’s instinctive fear response is often referred to ‘fight or flight’, and is actually ‘freeze, fight or flight’.
During such a response, blood and oxygen will be diverted to the legs and arms in preparation to flee or defend oneself. In labour, that means that essential blood and oxygen is diverted away from the muscle that needs that energy: the uterus. Because a woman in labour is not in a position to flee or fight, the freeze response is triggered, often causing labour to slow down or stop. Medical professionals will sometimes refer to such labours as ‘failing to progress’ (FTP). In hypnobirthing, we refer to such labours as exhibiting the fear-tension-pain (FTP) scenario. Where there is fear, the body experiences tension and that is when we can feel pain.
The human body and mind are very clever though. It is impossible for adrenaline (and therefore the fear response) to be present when one has rising levels of oxytocin and endorphins. So by using the hypnobirthing techniques, which help to reduce fear, increase feelings of confidence and calm and bring a deep state of relaxation, a birthing mother can manage labour and birth without experiencing the fear-tension-pain dilemma.
Wishing you a gentle birth.
Gina Potts is Director of ZenBirth UK. She comes from an academic research background, focusing on women's history, writing and feminism. Since 2009 has spent much of her time researching into all aspects of maternity care, pregnancy, birth and women’s postnatal health. In 2011, she founded ZenBirth and has helped hundreds of couples have a positive birth experience.