Previous month:
August 2006
Next month:
October 2006

You Smell (Oxytocin) Good

We highly evolved mammals don’t go around smelling each others' butts, but we still have the same pheromone-sensing organs our remote ancestors did.

The vomeronasal organ, located in the nasal passages, absorbs chemicals from the air and sends information to the brain, bypassing the cerebral cortex (the executive brain) and taking the message to the amygdala, the emotional part of the brain.

Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg, one of the earliest scientists to focus on oxytocin, did experiments with male rats to test whether the release of oxytocin could be stimulated by senses other than touch. Oxytocin reduces sensitivity to pain; when Moberg injected some male rats with oxytocin, their cage mates also became calmer and less stressed.

Giving the male rats that did not receive oxytocin an antagonist -- a chemical to block oxytocin's effects -- eliminated this effect in the cage mates, as did blocking their ability to smell.

These experiments showed two things: that the oxytocin systems of the cage mates had been activated, and they'd been activated through the sense of smell.

Moberg believes that this same smell effect happens in humans with oxytocin, although human experiments haven't been done.

We know that being around someone calm can help us chill. It may be that getting a whiff of the oxytocin she's putting out tells our own bodies to give up a little of the good stuff.

Moberg is author of "The Oxytocin Factor;" she's applied for a patent for the use of oxytocin to treat the symptoms of menopause.

Also see:

Interview With the Maker of Liquid Trus
Oxytocin Eases Menopause

Home-made Oxytocin Therapy for Pregnant Moms

I just finished reading "Ina May's Guide to Childbirth" and "Spiritual Midwifery," both by Ina May Gaskin. Ina May  has been a community midwife for more than 30 years, and helped invent home birthing methods.

The midwives in her practice believe that birth is a holy experience, and they do everything they can to make birth pleasurable, drug-free and intervention-free. (They do have physician and hospital back-up and use them when necessary.) They also operate a birthing center, The Farm Midwifery Center, where women can come to have a home-like birth with their husbands. (Members of The Farm spiritual community believe in monogamous, heterosexual marriage.)

Tnrough experimentation, study and intuition -- and allowing laboring mothers to express themselves freely -- Ina May and her partners have learned many natural ways to stimulate labor and speed it along.

Two things they highly recommend are kissing and stimulating the breasts of the mother-to-be.  When her husband holds her in his arms and kisses her, when he fondles and sucks her breasts, her brain releases pulses of oxytocin. These are the same oxytocin pulses that cause the strong uterine contractions of labor.

Doctors regularly use Pitocin, a synthetic oxytocin, to induce and manage labor. But they give a steady drip that doesn't give the mother's body time to rest, and the constant contraction of the uterus can block the baby's oxygen supply.

Encouraging the body to do its work with love and kisses is not only safer, it's nicer.  As Cara, one of the midwives, writes,

"Over and over again, I've seen that the best way to get a baby out is by cuddling and smooching with your husband. That loving, sexy vibe is what puts the baby in there, and it's what gets it out, too."

See also:

Birth, Oxytocin and Ecstacy
Reader Question on Oxytocin and Labor

Reader Question on OxyCalm and Labor

A reader asked,

I'm 10 days overdue, according to my birth date and wanted more info on the release of oxytocin to start labour. I'm wondering of the effects of this spray on pregnant women and how it would affect them, if this is the hormone that responds to labour induction. How would it affect them if in proximity of any person using the hormone?

Oxytocin is, in fact, the natural hormone that causes the uterus to contract in labor; pitocin is the synthetic version commonly used in hospitals to stimulate contractions and to reduce postpartum bleeding.

In the hospital, the standard dosage of oxytocin for helping to start labor is  0.5 to 2 milliunits per minute given via IV for an hour or more. Therefore, it's really unlikely -- in fact, seems impossible -- that being in the presence of someone using oxytocin himself could stimulate your own labor. Moreover, I don’t think OxyCalm in itself could induce labor.

It is possible that the small amounts of oxytocin in OxyCalm would help you or someone near you to feel calmer, which is important always and especially when you near your birthing time.

Remember, though, that the release of oxytocin is a natural process. The pituitary gland releases oxytocin when we feel nurtured and loved. When we feel threatened, unsafe or anxious, our sympathetic nervous system is activated. Its name belies the function of the sympathetic nervous system, which handles fight-or-flight behaviors.

I've been reading the excellent "Ina Mae's Guide to Childbirth," by Ina Mae Gaskin, one of the foremost authorities on natural birth. Her book is full of anecdotes about women whose births were stalled until they fixed something about their environments or relationships that made them feel unsafe. She writes, "Sphincters function best in an atmosphere of familiarity and privacy."

You might consider whether there's anything about your birth preparations that makes you feel uncomfortable and find an alternative. If this is the case, the change can help your natural oxytocin to flow.

You also can do many things to stimulate the release of oxytocin in your body. If you have a supportive partner, enjoy as much physical intimacy with this person as feels good to you. Kissing, stroking, massage and orgasm release powerful waves of oxytocin that can relax your body enough to start labor.

Congratulations on your upcoming birthing. I hope it's a wonderful experience for you and your baby!

Related posts:
Interview with OxyCalm Founder
Birth, Oxytocin and Ecstacy

tag: <a href="" rel="tag">"ecstatic birth"</a>

You Say Estrogen, I Say Testosterone

Mike sent me a rant from craigslist recounting a guy's frustrating conversation with his girlfriend. From his point of view, she was being ridiculously illogical and emotional. I thought it was pretty sexist.

Why do women and men so often dislike each other? We really are as different as cats and dogs. And that is due to the differences in our estrogen and testosterone. (Men's and women's bodies produce both hormones, but men have a whole lot more testosterone and vice versa.)

Max Wolf Valerio is someone who can illuminate how different men and women are. He's a female-to-male transsexual and an insightful, expressive writer. I just finished his book, The Testosterone Files, and it eliminated any lingering doubles I had about biology as destiny.

The subtitle is "My hormonal and social transformation from female to male." It's clear from his experience that the hormonal and social can't be separated.

In the first five years of his transition, Valerio found his emotions, his reactions, his very thoughts changing.

It’s not only that lust becomes stronger and more direct. He finds himself behaving in ways we might think are stereotypical of males, or the results of cultural conditioning. He actually find it harder to articulate his feelings.

He feels more amped up on testosterone, more alive. And when he remembers his emotional state as a woman, he writes, "I remember that soporific quality. Dreamy, nearly beatific in contrast to the charged, energized feeling I experience now."

He admits to a heightened urge to dominate situations. "I've noticed that I do take up more airspace in conversations now, especially with women, and have to hold myself back, watch that I'm not soaking up all the airtime without realizing it, in a roll, spinning out, a slight euphoria …"

Anger became quicker and stronger, more visceral. "Flares of hot anger shooting up from my feet through my solar plexus into my chest, flaming and swelling, shooting out into my head. I act: a primal, elemental impulse. Taking control through the loss of control."

What does this have to do with oxytocin and bonding? Estrogen enhances the effects of oxytocin while testosterone mutes them. The battle of the sexes is triggered by hormones -- men and women do love differently.

While Valerio charts the changes in his body, his mind and his relationships with women in depth and with great awareness, I was disappointed that there was not much about bonding in the book. I wish that he could have taken me along as the nature of his feelings of desire and commitment within a relationship -- or even within a series of relationships -- changed with the tide of testosterone.

Instead, the women come and go, relationships form and dissolve rather mysteriously. It's possible that Valerio's oxytocin response, that release of oxytocin in times of intimacy that can so firmly connect us, wasn't strong enough to tie him to another, even when estrogen was his guiding neuropeptide.

Or maybe it’s just his new, manly self. In one part, he bemusedly remembers the "lesbian bonding rituals" he used to go through with his girlfriends, holding each other and crying with emotion.

It’s not that boys don’t cry, he realizes. Boys can't cry - not as easily as girls, at any rate.

"I’d believed that men could cry as much as women if they'd just let themselves go. Men were victims of a masculine ethos that forbade tears, that made them into unfeeling, seething septic tanks of repressed pain ready to lash out.

I was wrong.

Emotionally, I do have a thicker skin now.  … I can shrug off hurt feelings a lot easier than I ever could before. … What might have upset me as a female for a few days, might now upset me for a few hours."

I admit that I have often looked at men as emotionally repressed, seething septic tanks of emotion. I've thought they'd be better off if they could be more like me.

Reading The Testosterone Files makes me wonder how men and women ever do get together and stay together. It’s like getting elephants and horses to do circus tricks together.

And yet, we do. Oxytocin binds us both to each other. That's the same bond in both of us, even if all the other parts of our bodies and brains cause its expression to be so different.

I think everyone should read The Testosterone Files. It should be required reading for 12-year-olds, but it can help all of us understand each other better.

Here is Valerio's blog, The First Steps.

Our Birthright of Love

Inspired by my wonderful new friend and midwife, Andrea, I'm reading "Spiritual Midwifery," by Ina May Gaskin.

One simple definition of spiritual midwifery is a way of assisting birth that involves the emotional as well as the physical state. The stories in the book illustrate how our individual births into the world set the emotional tone for our entire lives and how birth should be our initiation into the state of deep attunement with others that we call love.

Gaskin is part of a Tennessee community known as The Farm that practices honesty, true communication and emotional openness. Since the 1970s, community members have birthed at home whenever possible, aided by the Farm's midwives.

Farm women birth in their own beds, with their husbands close by. Only the midwife and any close friends the woman wants are present. She's encouraged to express herself and to do whatever she feels like.

Gaskin writes,

"I believe that much if the reason why the women whose births we attended were able to get through labor without anesthesia or tranquilizers had to do with the `atmosphere we learned to create at birth. There is a sound physiological explanation for why some women experience more pain in labor than others. A woman who is the center of positive attention feeling grateful, amused, loved and appreciated, has a higher level of the class of neurohormones called endorphins. Endorphins actually block the perception of pain.

On the other hand, there are also adrenalin-like substances which may be secreted by the body during labor, especially when the woman is afraid, cold, angry, humiliated or experiencing any other disagreeable emotion. Adrenalin is part of the body's protective mechanism when it is presented with danger. … The mother is made ready to fight or to flee when adrenalin levels are high, not to have her baby."

Gaskin began her work in the 1970s, long before research by Kerstin Uvnas Moberg, Sue Carter and others explored the role of oxytocin in bonding. Clearly, making the birthing mother the center of attention from those she knows and loves causes her brain to release powerful waves of oxytocin.

Oxytocin stimulates contractions, and it also ameliorates the fight-or-flight urges of the sympathetic nervous system. At the same time, in such an intimate birth setting, it reinforces the love and connection between mother, father, family and friends.

The baby comes out into this bath of love with oxytocin filling her own little bloodstream. As she's touched and held close, she takes her place in this web of connection.

"Touch is the most basic, the most non-conceptual form of communication that we have," Gaskin writes. She first experienced communication through touch with a Capuchin monkey she met. This monkey was kept by a man who clearly treated her with respect. She says,

"Her touch was incredibly alive and electric. There was so much concentrated feeliness in her hand that I felt this warm glow travel from her hand to mine, on up my arm, and then I felt a nice electric rush spread over my whole body. I had a flash of realization then that my hand wasn't made any different from hers. …"

Some people may think her statement is woo-woo, laughably new age or self-delusional. But what Gaskin describes is an oxytocin rush, bringing physical warmth, a sense of well-being and a feeling of connection with the other.

She says,

"I call this 'original touch' because it’s something everybody has as a brand-new baby, it's part of the kit. .. Many of us lose our 'original touch' as we interact with our fellow human beings in a fast or shallow manner."

We now know from neuroscience that we're born with the capacity, but not the ability to feel this. If we're lucky, the pulses of oxytocin at birth, as we're held and as we nurse stimulate the portions of our brain that will learn to release oxytocin on their own when we're loved.

I cried some, reading Gaskin's words, with grief. I still am struggling to come into my birthright of love.