If there was a drug that you could take before your labour starts that would make you fall in love with your partner all over again (despite the fact that you are probably going to shout unspeakable things at him during labour); help you breastfeed; make your contractions stronger and more effective; speed up your labour, reduce anxiety levels and help you to see your new born baby as the most beautiful baby in the world (regardless of reality) would you take it? What would happen if you knew that its side effects were extremely limited, and that you wouldnt need to swallow anything or even have a needle jabbed into you? Oh and it doesnt cost a cent. Would you take it? Nope! Having refused even a glass of crisp sauvignon blanc with my green salads, for the past nine months, I am not going to weaken now, I hear you cry. I am going to have a natural birth. The one thing I failed to tell you about this wonder drug, is that it isnt something manufactured in a laboratory. It is the natural hormone oxytocin. If left alone, your body will produce it in ample quantities to provide you with all its benefits during and after the birth. Its name, oxytocin gives a clue to its use in the body. Oxytocin comes from ancient Greek with oxys meaning quick and tokos meaning birth . But its role in the body is not simply to assist birth. Its uses within the body are so varied that the American obstetrician and researcher, Dr Niles Newton, described it as the Hormone of Love, in some of the earliest research into oxytocin in the 1950s. Oxytocin – the brain hormone Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus, which is a small gland about the size of an almond found just above the brain stem. Once released into the blood supply by the pituitary gland it circulates in the body until it finds an oxytocin receptor. Oxytocin receptors are found in the mammary glands in the breasts and the uterus in women and also the brains of both women and men. On finding an oxytocin receptor, the oxytocin causes both physical and emotional changes in the body. Oxytocins and reproduction Reproduction is directly assisted by oxytocin. Male orgasm causes the immediate release of oxytocin that then stimulates contractions within the seminal vesicles causing the semen to be ejaculated from the penis. Female orgasm also causes the release of oxytocin.the oxytocin leads the uterus to rhythmically contract and assist in propelling the sperm towards the fallopian tubes.[i] Oxytocin, birth and breastfeeding Nine months after creating a new life, oxytocin has a different role in a womans body and brain. During labour, oxytocin causes the uterus to contract and encourages opening of the cervix to allow a baby to enter the vagina. Here the body provides a useful feedback mechanism as the baby enters the vagina. Nerves in the vaginal wall provide feedback to the hypothalamus indicating progress. If progress is not as fast as it should be, more oxytocin is released, encouraging stronger contractions from the uterus. The oxytocin sloshing around in the body, even after the baby is born, is not wasted. Oxytocin receptors in the breasts encourage the milk let down reflex to allow the newborn baby to suckle.the link between oxytocin and milk has been known since at least the 2nd Century when the Greek doctor, Galen wrote about how herdsmen would stimulate the vagina of mares to improve the quantity of milk available. Vaginal stimulation released oxytocin and that increased milk output.this is why women who have had a caesarean section may have trouble commencing breastfeeding the absence of oxytocin. However, stimulating the nipples can encourage oxytocin production and thus increase milk output. When a baby suckles, oxytocin is released which further helps the let down of milk. New mothers will also notice that the suckling can also cause mildly painful contractions as the oxytocin encourages the uterus to return to its pre-pregnant size. Some couples make use of oxytocin as a way of stimulating the onset of labour when the baby is considered overdue. sex, with or without orgasm can release oxytocin, but if being in the late stages of pregnancy penetrative sex doesnt feel comfortable, then simply kissing, hugging and intimacy can promote oxytocin release. Emotional changes and fear Some of the emotional effects of oxytocin are quite stunning. Oxytocin surging through the body helps the woman who has just given birth to bond with her baby.that first glance at the baby that makes the intensity of labour immediately fade and a flood of love for the baby suffuse through out the womans mind and body, is caused by oxytocin.this is why women who have planned caesarean sections often report more difficulty in bonding with their baby than women who have had natural births.the oxytocin that is so much part of labour is absent. Anecdotally, midwives have known this for a long time, but it was only when researchers, like Dr Dianne Witt, from Binghampton University in the USA, started blocking the release of oxytocin at birth in animals and discovered that the mothers subsequently rejected their offspring, that it become apparent that natural labouring and the benefits for mother-infant bonding had a scientific explanation.[ii] An interesting story reported in Nature in 2005[iii] found that when oxytocin was given to human subjects, they were more willing to trust each other than those without the oxytocin.this provided further evidence that oxytocin is an important part in family bonding. Oxytocin has also been shown to reduce anxiety and fear in humans.[iv]this is a highly useful benefit during childbirth because the emotion of fear can lead to the excretion of adrenaline into the body. Adrenalines role is to prepare the body for either a fight or flight response and it can shut down or slow labour.through oxytocin relaxing the woman and reducing her fear and anxiety, the likelihood of adrenaline being released is reduced. Artificial oxytocin – second best Artificial oxytocin, (called syntocinon or Pitocin ) is widely used in obstetrics to induce labour. Women who are considered overdue are often induced by being hooked up to a Syntocinon drip.the Syntocinon works by stimulating the uterus to contract. Regretfully, because the Syntocinon infusion is not being regulated by the womans brain but by a machine, the contractions precipitated by the Syntocinon are often far more painful and intense than naturally arising contractions.syntocinon induced labour can be very difficult for the woman to handle and this can lead to the cascade of intervention leading to a caesarean section.[v] It is important to remember that overly painful contractions caused by oxytocic induction not only causes anguish for the mother, but the strength of the contractions can also cause distress to the baby again leading to an increase in the likelihood of surgical interventions.[vi] Where Syntocinon can be a life saver is if the woman after the birth has a haemorrhage, or excessive bleeding, after the expelling of the placenta. In such an event, the midwife can give an injection of Syntocinon that stops the bleeding. Normally, the amount of oxytocin in the body is sufficient after a natural birth to stop a haemorrhage. Oxytocin addiction Much of what we know about oxytocin comes from research on a little vole. Far from Australia, on the flat plains of America, lives a small non-descript, grey-brown mammal, about 15cm long. The prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster) has a unique claim to fame. It is one of the very few mammals that are monogamous. Once the prairie vole has found a fellow vole of the opposite sex and decided to mate, it is smitten for life. Fifty percent of its short twelve-month life is spent being pressed against its mate. It cuddles its way through life, and all because of oxytocin. On mating (which goes on for twenty-four hours), oxytocin surges through the voles brain, swamping its receptors and releasing the feel great hormone, dopamine.the females brain is now imprinted with the notion that its partner with whom it mated, makes her feel great and thus her life partner. Remarkably the male feels the same. If other female voles come near him, he will growl and send them packing. His eyes are only for his first love. As well as cuddling her constantly, he will help bring up the babies and be the perfect parent and if she should sadly die, before him, he will remain single for the rest of his life[vii]. All because of oxytocin, the hormone of love. Implications for birth and breast-feeding A womans body is a remarkable being. In nine short months it grows a single-celled organism into the most complex and advanced life-form on this planet. It feeds it, nutures it, and removes its waste products and then sometime after forty weeks, the female body, through a complex interplay of hormonal signals, births the baby. Oxytocin, plays a pivotal role in amazing process. But the process is a finely balanced one, and interference in the birth without good reason can interrupt the hormonal interplay, and make what is a reassuringly natural event into a medical marathon. Oxytocin is indeed the birth and post-birth wonder-drug, but for it to do its work properly it needs a calm, intervention-free labour. Go for it! [i] Michelle Odent, sexuality as a Theme , 5 September 2005. Available at: http://www.fabooks.com/news.php?id=16 [ii] The Cuddle Hormone research links oxytocin and sociosexual behaviours, Inside Binghampton University, 29 October 1998. [iii] Oxytocin increases trust in humans, Kosfeld et al, Nature 2 June 2005, p571 [iv] Oxytocin modulates neural circuitry for social cognition and fear in humans, Kirsch et al, Journal of Neuroscience, 7 Dec 2005, p11489 [v] Rates for obstetric intervention among private and public patients in Australia: population based descriptive study , Roberts C, Tracy S, Peat B, British Medical Journal, 2000; 321:137-41 [vi] The Thinking Womans Guide to a Better Birth, Henci Goer, Penguin, New York, 1999 [vii] Addicted to Love, Christopher Mims, Zoogoer, June 2004, http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Publications/ZooGoer/2004/3/monogamy.cfm