Breaking news from Michel Odent's conference on Birth & Primal Health Research*: data is clear that we humans are losing the capacity to give birth! How can that be? It is pure evolution in action: when we do not use certain functions of our physiology, the "message" to our always-changing bodymind system -- a message that becomes passed down to future generations through changes in DNA expression -- is, "That function is no longer needed."
Oxytocin: Liquid Peace
Oxytocin has been in the news lately, the hormone of love...the moral molecule..."liquid peace" I like to call it. Oxytocin mediates a massive array of positive effects on humans: decreased stressed response, higher threshold for pain, increased trust, decreased depression, increased social interaction and responsiveness to social cues. It is the chemical of connection. As Michel Odent has synthesized in his Primal Research Database, it mediates the central capacity to love -- to love self, to love others, to love the environment.
Odent was straightforward with his point: "The 'capacity to love' is shaped in the period of birth." Before proceeding, he was emphatic about the point that I also want to make clear: when we're talking about this kind of epidemiological research ("epidemiology: the study of disease and health in populations"), we are NOT talking about any single individual. So please don't read this and immediately think about anyone you know, including your own child. As Odent put it in his enchanting French accent, "Forget individuals, forget your family, forget people you know." This is about our global human family, and our shared future as a species.
Impaired capacity to love is central to an array of psycho-social issues such as depression, self-injury, bullying, narcissistically vulnerable personality traits, autism, and suicide.
Birthing a Baby, Birthing A Psyche
Childbirth is a time of massive organization of oxytocin circuitry that persists lifelong -- for the child being born, and also for the mother. In yesterday afternoon's session on primal health research and epigenetics, Odent pointed out that dozens of studies from around the world have found autism risk factors around the time of birth.
As I write in my book Parenting for Peace, "Biochemical cascades triggered during an unimpeded mammalian labor and birth (and postpartum) establish in the baby enduring set points for his brain’s self-regulating and social functions. These thresholds will to a great extent forecast how able this individual will be to respond to later influence -- including parental, educational, and spiritual guidance -- aimed at cultivating socially conscious attitudes and behaviors."
While many different variables have been found as risk factors, induction with synthetic oxytocin is emerging as a primary focus for autism risk. One example Odent gave was a study in Japan of outcomes from two hospitals in the same neighborhood (thus same population), which found a much higher incidence of autism in those children born in the hospital whose standard protocol was to induce labor with synthetic oxytocin at 39 weeks.
Dissing Oxytocin, Risking Our Healthy Future
The rampant use of synthetic oxytocin (Pitocin) to induce or augment labor has led to a loss of physiological function through disuse. Quite bluntly put, we have been chipping away at our oxytocin system, because, as Odent said, "We've lost our physiological need for the oxytocin system, because most women give birth with a drip."
At the moment that I'm writing this (Saturday morning in Honolulu), Dr. Kerstin Uvnäs-Moberg is giving a plenary talk entitled "Oxytocin: The Inner Guide to Motherhood." It has been an excellent primer on the role of oxytocin, the amazing effects of oxytocin on a close, connected, more easy attachment between mother and baby.
She also shows very clearly what happens to our natural oxytocin system when synthetic oxytocin is administered in place of our naturally released version. For one thing, synthetic oxytocin comes in one steady stream, whereas our natural, "inner pharmacy" version is pulsatile: it comes in rhythmic waves.
She asks quite directly, "Do we protect and use our oxytocin system as we should?" Oxytocin is centrally related to our natural capacity to give birth. When we have a scheduled C-section, for example, there is no oxytocin release in the mother's brain, and thus a severe interruption in the establishment of the postnatal oxytocin circuitry wiring in the newborn. Similarly, as an epidural blocks nerve impulses of pain, so too does it block the Ferguson reflexes responsible for stimulating the action of the oxytocin system.
Michel Odent sums up the sobering conclusion of current research with this chilling observation: after just 3 or 4 generations of highly technological childbirth, it seems very possible that our human oxytocin system is weakening.
In other words, our capacity to give birth is weakening.
Spread the word: let us protect our joy, our peace, our ability to be deeply connected humans. Let us protect our species in our most glorious potential.
Advocate for oxytocin!
About Marcy Axness, PhD
I'm the author of Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers, and also the adoption expert on Mothering's expert panel. I write and speak around the world on prenatal, child and parent development, and I have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans, earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. On the wings of my new book I'm delighted to be speaking at many wonderful conferences all over the world in the coming months, and I'm happy to be sharing dispatches and inside glimpses with you here on Mothering.com! As a special gift to Mothering readers I'm offering "A Unique 7-Step Parenting Tool."
[*I'm sitting in the lecture hall in the gorgeous Hawaiian Convention Center in Honolulu.]
Image of laboring woman: miguelb under Creative Commons license.