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Oxytocin, a multi-tasking birth hormone

Saturday 1 Oct 2022
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Oxytocin is sometimes called a “love hormone” because it plays several important roles in connection with pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding, but it is also important for the bonding between parent and newborn.

The body goes through numerous physiological changes after fertilization to ensure a healthy and safe pregnancy, and later a successful childbirth.1 To enable all these changes, hormones – the body’s messenger molecules – change in numbers during the progression of the pregnancy.1 Similarly,  the receptors to which hormones bind also change in numbers.1 As an example, an increase of oxytocin receptors on the surface of the uterus makes it more sensitive to the hormone.2 

Oxytocin is produced in the pituitary gland and secreted into the bloodstream by the hypothalamus at the base of the brain.1 During labour, oxytocin is secreted in pulses, causing the uterus to alternately contract and relax, creating a motion that pushes the baby towards the birth canal.1 This starts a positive and self-reinforcing loop: when the baby’s head touches the birth canal, oxytocin secretion is further induced.1 Once the baby is born, oxytocin’s tasks shift to enable breastfeeding.1

In fact, the effects of oxytocin on newborns and their parents goes beyond childbirth and breastfeeding. Oxytocin helps lowering stress levels during and after pregnancy.3,4 Recent studies have shown that low oxytocin levels in the last trimester are associated with higher risks of getting a post pregnancy depression.3,5 Additionally, oxytocin is affecting the parents’ instinct to care for the baby and the bonding between parent and newborn.5 Higher levels of oxytocin and a strong attachment to the newborn has shown to result in greater confidence in one’s ability to take care of the baby.3 

So, is there anything we can do to increase our levels of oxytocin? Yes! Massage, cuddling and hugging are activities that, along with exercise and singing together, can lead to higher levels of oxytocin. 5 Strengthening the bond between you and your partner through this type of exercises can therefore prevent anxiety after delivery, for both of you.6 Oxytocin is a versatile hormone, essential for a healthy pregnancy, delivery, parenting and well-being in general! 

References  
1.

Neurophysiological and cognitive changes in pregnancy. Handbook of Clinical Neurology, Elsevier. 2020. Volume 171 (25–55). Grattan DR, Ladyman SR.

2.

Myometrial contractility influences oxytocin receptor (OXTR) expression in term trophoblast cells obtained from the maternal surface of the human placenta. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 2015. Volume 15:220. Dariusz Szukiewicz, Anna Bilska, Tarun Kumar Mittal, Aleksandra Stangret, Jaroslaw Wejman,Grzegorz Szewczyk, Michal Pyzlak, and  Jacek Zamlynski

3.

Are pregnancy and postpartum oxytocin level a predictive biomarker for postpartum depression? Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. 2021. Volume 47 (4280-4288). Ayseren Cevik and Sultan Alan

4.

Brain Oxytocin: A Key Regulator of Emotional and Social Behaviours in Both Females and Men. Journal of Neuroendocrinology. 2008. Volume 20 (858-865). I. D. Neumann

5.

Oxytocin: The love hormone, July 20, 2021, Harvard Women’s Health Watch, Stephanie Watson

6.

Separation Anxiety, Attachment and Inter-Personal Representations: Disentangling the Role of Oxytocin in the Perinatal Period. PLOS ONE. 2014. Volume 9. Valsamma Eapen, Mark Dadds, Bryanne Barnett, Jane Kohlhoff, Feroza Khan, Naomi Radom, Derrick M. Silove

7.

The photo was taken by Andre Adjahoe and downloaded from Unsplash