Oxytocin: More than meets the eye
WHAT IS OXYTOCIN WHY SHOULD WE CARE?
The Calm and Connection System; Oxytocin it’s for more than just Labor
Oxytocin is a hormone that most people connect with birth and nursing, but it is not just a female hormone. Did you know that it is found in males and holds many capabilities that promote calm and connection inside the human body?
So what is Oxytocin …. And why should you care? Well, here is a bit of history, oxytocin was named from the Greek words “Quick and Childbirth Labor” and was discovered in 1906 by an English researcher Sir Henry Dale. It is made up of 9 amino acids and plays a dual role in our body as a hormone and a neurotransmitter (signaling substance).
There are 2 important brain centers, the hypothalamus and the pituitary. Oxytocin is created in the hypothalamus. A bit about the hypothalamus: it is where regulation of internal organs such as working of the heart muscle, circulation of the blood, activities of digestion, and secretions from glands occurs via the autonomic nervous system.
The hypothalamus also operates by influencing the hormonal control system in the pituitary gland. The hypothalamus communicates with the body through the nervous system and hormones that are secreted into the bloodstream.
Oxytocin as a Hormone
The pituitary gland has 2 lobes, a front and a back (frontal and dorsal). The frontal lobe produces growth hormone, prolactin, hormones that stimulate creation of the stress hormone cortisol, the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), and sex hormones that stimulate ovaries and testicles. These hormones travel through the bloodstream.
However, it is still the hypothalamus that ultimately controls the hormonal signals using a feedback system. Oxytocin is created in the hypothalamus and transported to the pituitary’s dorsal lobe then released into the bloodstream to be delivered to their target organs.
There are 2 types of hormones that are recognized, steroid and peptide. Oxytocin is a peptide, meaning it does not enter a cell itself, it activates receptors on the outer surface of the cell membrane.
Oxytocin as a Neurotransmitter:
Oxytocin’s dual role also includes release directly from the hypothalamus to the nervous system as it behaves like a signaling substance in many places in the brain that direct activity of the autonomic nervous system.
Regardless if the body’s chemical messengers are transmitted from nerve endings or reach their target organs via the bloodstream, special receptors are needed to accept the hormone to produce an effect. These receptors are located on or inside the cells and are adapted to react only to a certain substance or closely related substance.
The task of hormones and of nerves is to convey information and coordinate activity in the body. The two systems function in different but complimentary ways. The hormones that travel through the bloodstream their activity is regulated by the presences of absence of receptors in the organs or parts of the body. Individual nerves reach only a limited area where they delivery signaling substances that cause specific localized effects.
This dual system for transmitting biochemical information increases the powerful effects of oxytocin throughout the body.
OXYTOCINS POWERFUL EFFECTS IN THE BODY
Oxytocin has more than one role in the body and goes beyond contractions for birth, it is our calm and connection system for bonding, love, feeling peace and relaxation. This is expressed physically with lower blood pressure and heartrate. It is the opposite of our fight or flight system.
The main maternal birth hormone of oxytocin is also the main hormone of love. This hormone is never released in isolation but is always a component of a complex hormonal balance (Michel Odent). Oxytocin is released to cause labor contractions, but did you know just after birth or during breastfeeding, oxytocin release is associated with the release of prolactin? Prolactin is the “motherhood” hormone and the combination of these two facilitates the expression of maternal love.
Love is not just for poets or novelists it is also the subject for scientific disciplines such as Primal Health Research who study the long-term consequences of events at the beginning of life as well as the study of the behavioral effects of hormones involved in different sexual experiences. All of these studies confirm the importance of the primal period especially the time surrounding birth.
The significance concerns us all because now-a-days women give birth without the release of the important cocktail of the love hormones. Many women around the world receive synthetic oxytocin via intravenous drip as a substitute for the natural hormones their pituitary gland cannot easily release. In some countries cesareans are more common than vaginal birth which may bypass the release of the hormonal cocktail altogether.
The Oxytocin system is involved in relaxation and feelings of calm. Oxytocin is thought to have a positive effect on our social memory such as recognizing someone we have met before. In small amounts it can reduce anxiety and increase curiosity. In large amounts, it helps to feel calmer, produces sleep-inducing effects, and can alleviate strong perceptions of pain. This antianxiety effect can help improve our ability to learn as well because it is easier to learn when you’re not under duress.
Oxytocin plays another important role in the digestion process. In short periods of time such as labor it decreases our appetite. Then, if a mother continues to stimulate the release of oxytocin by nursing and change oxytocin’s effect on the digestive system. Over long periods of time, oxytocin will increase the appetite and stimulate the release of gastric juices. The release of digestive hormones such as gastrin, cholecystokinin, somatostatin, and insulin that help promote storage of nourishment in the body.
Oxytocin also plays a role in healing and contributes by helping to rejuvenate mucous membranes and produce anti-inflammatory reactions.
When it comes to relationships oxytocin is the creator of emotional bonds between people. Not only people though, but it also even gives us a certain “feel-good” feeling with certain places that we have ‘a relation to’.
Through feelings of support, warmth, love, and touch, found in good relationships, oxytocin is released and turns on the calm and connection system which is important for health. Especially with respect to diseases of the cardiovascular system. Oxytocin creates a calm and connection response that lowers the blood pressure and heart rate, lower stress hormones and better nutritional uptake.
IMPACT OF OXYTOCIN ON SOCIETY
It is recognized that oxytocin is seldom the final link in the many chain-reaction effects that it can trigger. Oxytocin also influences and is influenced by other neurotransmitter’s such as serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline. Understanding that on a cellular level oxytocin’s effects create a pattern of reciprocal connections and overall has a connection to how we can create a state of calm and connection inside our body’s.
Some of today’s treatments for anxiety and depression affect the activity of the serotonin system. Low levels of serotonin are related to depression and some types of anxiety. Since oxytocin is known to have an influence on serotonin could consciously doing things to help release higher levels of oxytocin in our body help with anxiety and depression?
Is it possible that if we are treated with massages, meditation, breathing and relaxation exercises, that we could increase our oxytocin levels and help our serotonin levels so we can experience increased feelings of well-being and happiness? We have this wonderful healing substance inside of us and we need only to learn how we can draw upon it!
There is so much to explore….
MobergKerstin Uvnäs, & Odent, M. (2012). The oxytocin factor: Tapping thehormone of calm, Love, and healing. Pinter and Martin.
Hi, I'm Marya Eddaifi
I was only 22 when I had my son. It wasn't the best experience but I didn't know better.
It wasn’t until after I became a Labor and Delivery nurse did I realize how badly I was treated and grieved over my birth. Did I tell you this was 15 years later?
After realizing how nurses and medical providers impact such a huge life event, it became my mission to change the world through beautiful birth experiences!