Birth&Bunnies posted the article below in another thread here and I thought it fit pretty well into this discussion, too. Great thread going!
Ecstatic Birth: The Hormonal Blueprint of Labor Mothering Magazine - Issue 111, March/April 2002
By Sarah J. Buckley
Giving birth in ecstasy: this is our birthright and our body’s intent. Mother Nature, in her wisdom, prescribes birthing hormones that
take us outside (ec) our usual state (stasis) so that we can be transformed on every level as we enter motherhood. This exquisite
hormonal orchestration unfolds optimally when birth is undisturbed, enhancing safety for both mother and baby. Science is also
increasingly discovering what we realize as mothers- that our way of birth affects us life-long, mother and child, and that an ecstatic
birth, a birth that takes us beyond our Self, is the gift of a lifetime.
Four major hormonal systems are active during labor and birth. These involve oxytocin, the hormone of love; endorphins, hormones
of pleasure and transcendence; epinephrine and norepinephrine, hormones of excitement; and prolactin, the mothering hormone.
These systems are common to all mammals and originate in our mammalian or middle brain, also known as the limbic system. For
birth to proceed optimally, this part of the brain must take precedence over the neocortex, or rational brain. This shift can be helped
by an atmosphere of quiet and privacy, with, for example, dim lighting and little conversation, and no expectation of rationality from the
laboring woman. Under such conditions a woman intuitively will choose the movements, sounds, breathing, and positions that will birth
her baby most easily. This is her genetic and hormonal blueprint.
All of these systems are adversely affected by current birth practices. Hospital environments and routines are not conducive to the
shift in consciousness that giving birth naturally requires. A woman’s hormonal physiology is further disturbed by practices such as
induction, the use of painkillers and epidurals, caesarean surgery, and separation of mother and baby after birth.
Hormones in Birth
Perhaps the best-known birth hormone is oxytocin, the hormone of love, which is secreted during sexual activity, male and female
orgasm, birth, and breastfeeding. Oxytocin engenders feelings of love and altruism; as Michel Odent says, “Whatever the facet of Love
we consider, oxytocin is involved.”
Oxytocin is made in the hypothalamus, the “master gland” deep in our brains, and stored in the posterior pituitary, from where it is
released in pulses. It is a crucial hormone in reproduction and mediates what have been called the ejection reflexes: the sperm
ejection reflex with male orgasm (and the corresponding sperm introjection reflex with female orgasm); the fetal ejection reflex at birth
(a phrase coined by Odent for the powerful contractions at the end of an undisturbed labor, which birth the baby quickly and easily);
and, postpartum, the placental ejection reflex and the milk ejection, or let-down reflex, in breastfeeding.
As well as reaching peak levels in each of these situations, oxytocin is secreted in large amounts in pregnancy, when it acts to enhance
nutrient absorption, reduce stress, and conserve energy by making us more sleepy. Oxytocin also causes the rhythmic uterine
contractions of labor, and levels peak at birth through stimulation of stretch receptors in a woman’s lower vagina as the baby
descends. The high levels continue after bir th, culminating with the birth of the placenta, and then gradually subside.
The baby also produces oxytocin during labor, perhaps even initiating labor; so, in the minutes after birth, both mother and baby are
bathed in an ecstatic cocktail of hormones. At this time ongoing oxytocin production is enhanced by skin-to-skin and eye-to-eye contact
and by the baby’s first suckling. Good levels of oxytocin also protect against postpartum hemorrhage by ensuring good uterine
contractions. In breastfeeding, oxytocin mediates the let-down reflex and is released in pulses as the baby suckles. During the months
and years of lactation, oxytocin continues to keep the mother relaxed and well nourished. One researcher calls it “a very efficient
antistress situation which prevents a lot of disease later on.” In her study, mothers who breastfed for more than seven weeks were
calmer than mothers who did not. Outside its role in reproduction, oxytocin is secreted in other situations of love and altruism, for
example, sharing a meal. Researchers have implicated malfunctions of the oxytocin system in conditions such as schizophrenia,
autism, cardiovascular disease, and drug dependency, and have suggested that oxytocin may mediate the antidepressant effect of
drugs such as Prozac.
As a naturally occurring opiate, beta-endorphin has properties similar to meperidine (pethidine, Demerol), morphine, and heroin, and
has been shown to work on the same receptors of the brain. Like oxytocin, beta-endorphin is secreted from the pituitary gland, and
high levels are present during sex, pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding. Beta-endorphin is also a stress hormone, released under
conditions of duress and pain, when it acts as an analgesic and, like other stress hormones, suppresses the immune system. This
effect may be important in preventing a pregnant mother’s immune system from acting against her baby, whose genetic material is
foreign to hers.
Like the addictive opiates, beta-endorphin induces feelings of pleasure, euphoria, and dependency or, with a partner, mutual dependency.
Beta-endorphin levels are high in pregnancy and increase throughout labor, when levels of beta-endorphin and corticotrophin
(another stress hormone) reach those found in male endurance athletes during maximal exercise on a treadmill. Such high levels help
the laboring woman to transmute pain and enter the altered state of consciousness that characterizes an undisturbed birth.
Beta-endorphin has complex and incompletely understood relationships with other hormonal systems. In labor, high levels will inhibit
oxytocin release. It makes sense that when pain or stress levels are very high, contractions will slow, thus “rationing labour according
to both physiological and psychological stress.” Beta-endorphin also facilitates the release of prolactin during labor, which prepares
the mother’s breasts for lactation and also aids in the final stages of lung maturation for the baby. Beta-endorphin is also important in
breastfeeding. Levels peak in the mother at 20 minutes, and beta-endorphin is present as well in breastmilk, inducing pleasure and
mutual dependency for both mother and baby in their ongoing relationship.
The hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine (adrenaline and noradrenaline) are also known as the fight-or-flight hormones or,
collectively, as catecholamines (CAs). They are secreted from the adrenal gland, above the kidney, in response to stresses such as
fright, anxiety, hunger, or cold, as well as excitement, when they activate the sympathetic nervous system for fight or flight.
In the first stage of labor, high CA levels inhibit oxytocin production, therefore slowing or inhibiting labor. CAs also act to reduce blood
flow to the uterus and placenta, and therefore to the baby. This makes sense for mammals birthing in the wild, where the presence of
danger would activate this sympathetic response, inhibiting labor and diverting blood to the major muscle groups so that the mother
can flee to safety.
In humans, high levels of CAs have been associated with longer labor and adverse fetal heart rate patterns. After an undisturbed
labor, however, when the moment of birth is imminent, these hormones act in a different way. There is a sudden increase in CA levels,
especially noradrenaline, which activates the fetal ejection reflex. The mother experiences a sudden rush of energy; she will be upright
and alert, with a dry mouth and shallow breathing and perhaps the urge to grasp something. She may express fear, anger, or excitement,
and the CA rush will cause several very strong contractions, which will birth the baby quickly and easily.
Some birth attendants have made good use of this reflex when a woman is having difficulties in the second stage of labor. For
example, an anthropologist working with an indigenous Canadian tribe recorded that when a woman was having difficulty in birth, the
young people of the village would gather together to help. They would suddenly and unexpectedly shout out close to her, with the shock
triggering her fetal ejection reflex and a quick birth.
After the birth, CA levels drop steeply. The new mother may feel shaky or cold as a consequence. A warm atmosphere is important, as
ongoing high CA levels will inhibit oxytocin and therefore increase the risk of postpartum hemorrhage.
Noradrenaline, as part of the ecstatic cocktail, is also implicated in instinctive mothering behavior. Mice bred to be deficient in noradrenaline
will not care for their young after birth unless noradrenaline is injected back into their system.
For the baby also, birth is an exciting and stressful event, reflected in high CA levels. These assist the baby during birth by protecting
against the effects of hypoxia (lack of oxygen) and subsequent acidosis. High CA levels at birth ensure that the baby is wide-eyed and
alert at first contact with the mother. The baby’s CA levels also drop rapidly after an undisturbed birth, being soothed by contact with
Known as the mothering hormone, prolactin is the major hormone of breastmilk synthesis and breastfeeding. Traditionally it has been
thought to produce aggressively protective behavior (the “mother tiger” effect) in lactating females. Levels of prolactin increase in
pregnancy, although milk production is inhibited hormonally until the placenta is delivered. Levels further increase in labor and peak at
birth. Prolactin is also a hormone of submission or surrender (in primate troops, the dominant male has the lowest prolactin level)
and produces some degree of anxiety. In the breastfeeding relationship, these effects activate the mother’s vigilance and help her to
put her baby’s needs first. The baby also produces prolactin while in the womb, and high levels are found in amniotic fluid, possibly of
uterine or placental origin.30 The function of prolactin in the baby is unknown.
Undisturbed birth is exceedingly rare in our culture, even in birth centers and homebirths. Two factors that disturb bir th in all mammals
are firstly being in an unfamiliar place and secondly the presence of an observer. Feelings of safety and privacy thus seem to be
fundamental. Yet the entire system of Western obstetrics is devoted to observation of pregnant and birthing women, by both people
and machines; when birth isn’t going smoothly, obstetricians respond with yet more intense observation. It is indeed amazing that any
woman can give birth under such conditions. Some writers have observed that, for a woman, having a baby has a lot of parallels with
making a baby: same hormones, same parts of the body, same sounds, and the same needs for feelings of safety and privacy. How
would it be to attempt to make love in the conditions under which we expect women to give birth?
For birthing Maia Rose, my fourth baby, I arranged a situation where I felt very safe and very private, and I had my shortest, easiest,
and most ecstatic labor and birth—one and a half hours with an 8-pound, unexpectedly breech baby. I believe this birth proceeded
optimally because I was totally free to follow my instincts, and because I felt safe and private. Each woman must labor where, and with
whom, she feels safest, and my situation would not suit everyone. But it underscores the huge gap between what was ideal for me and
my baby, physiologically and hormonally, and the standard care offered in most hospitals.