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September 2007
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In Medical Births, Belief Trumps Science

Just another small piece of evidence in how American birthing practices have gotten off track: A recent review of studies found the practice of "breaking the water," that is, rupturing the amniotic sac, had no effect on the onset or second stage of labor, the health of the baby, nor on the mother's satisfaction with the birth process.

Doctors in hospitals routinely rupture the sac, in the belief that this releases hormones that stimulate contractions. According to this article in Health Behavior News Service, this practice began in 1756, fer cripes sake.

So, when physicians reviewed 14 studies examining the effects of amniotomy, they found it seemed to be more folklore than good medicine.

This conclusion is echoed in the article, in which a university MD is willing to go on the record as saying that he doesn't care what the science says:

However, several American doctors said the findings are unlikely to change the way obstetricians help women give birth in the United States. “Most of us believe it works, so there will be a lot skepticism about this,” said Mark Nichols, M.D., professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Oregon Health & Sciences University.


The Limerence Position

Just for fun today, I'm highlighting a "radio comic strip" from 11 Central Ave. These are short multi-character plays that comment on life -- and frequently on love and lust, two things for which oxytocin is vital. (Re sex, oxytocin enables erection and engorgement of the genitals.)

This particular show is about limerence, that madly intoxicating state that precedes romance and love. (For more on limerance, see my post  Is It Love or Is It Limerence?

Susan Shepherd produces these for Chicago Public Radio, and they're distributed to other stations across the U.S.

Here's how she describes the series:

This four-minute radiostrip plays out in the kitchen of 11 Central Ave, the home of an extended family where a hodgepodge of other characters regularly drops in. As they rush around in the morning drinking coffee, reading the paper, looking for their shoes, they're talking about everything from the most compelling topics of our time (the Supreme Court nominee and his views on abortion) to the most ridiculous (mommy blogging), and everything in between -- covenant marriage, teens hooking up, the next pandemic, the fog of internet dating.

This could become a habit!

Oxytocin Lite?

Fellow journalist Sarah Carillo interviewed me for her story about "lite relationships." Her takeaway is that dating someone you know you could never be serious about just wastes time and energy.

According to Carillo,

There are some definite pros to the arrangement, including regular sex and companionship, and a chance to try dating someone you might not have otherwise (or at least date someone who’s close to your ideal mate, but not quite there). But it’s also all too easy for this “lite” situation to get out of hand...


It's a fun piece: 'Lite' Relationships: When To Take An ‘Unserious’ Relationship Seriously

The Amazing Vagus Nerve

A doctor at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research has found that stimulating the vagus nerve can short-circuit the body's inflammation response.

According to the article in Science Daily,

[Kevin Tracey] discovered that the vagus nerve speaks directly to the immune system through a neurochemical called acetylcholine. And stimulating the vagus nerve sent commands to the immune system to stop pumping out toxic inflammatory markers. "This was so surprising to us," said Dr. Tracey, who immediately saw the potential to use vagus stimulation as a way to shut off abnormal immune system responses. He calls this network "the inflammatory reflex."

Why am I covering this in a blog about oxytocin?

It's because the vagus nerve is a major pathway between the body and the brain, and it's also an oxytocin highway. Remember, oxytocin is an anti-inflammatory, anti-stress hormone.

When the intestines begin to digest fat, they secrete cholecystokinin (CCK). CCK travels along the vagus nerve to the brain, where it stimulates the release of oxytocin. Oxytocin travels back down to the stomach, causing its walls to contract and creating that full-belly feeling.

The vagus also acts as an alternate pathway between the genitals and the brain. When Beverly Whipple, Barry Komisaruk and Carlos Beyer-Flores of Rutgers studied the sexual responses of women with spinal cord injuries, they found that even though they couldn't move or feel anything down there, they still were able to have orgasms.

They found that sexual stimulation bypassed the spinal cord and went directly from the genitals to the brain via the vagus nerve. Nerves from the mammary glands, uterus and skin, especially the chest, also connect directly to this sensory superhighway. These vagal signals stimulated the brain's reward, emotion and memory systems, causing the release of oxytocin, as well as exciting dopamine and rewarding opioids.

Tracey may not be studying oxytocin, but I'd bet that stimulating the vagus causes the release of oxytocin, and it's that which cools out the inflammatory response.

For more on oxytocin's role in eating, see The Sex/Food/Love Connection.

Peanuts Comix Reveal Schultz' Loneliness

Charles Schultz' Peanuts comics strips have made millions -- or billions, probably -- of people happy. In return, everyone loved and admired him. What's wrong with this picture?

Evidently, Schultz was unable to experience all this love, and he felt alone all his life, according to this Reuters story about a new biography of Schultz.

In Schultz and Peanuts, David Michaelis says that the comic strip reflected Schultz' melancholy worldview and internal doubt and loneliness. According to Reuters,

Michaelis says that to the day he died, Schulz could recall the terror of being separated as a boy from his mother on a crowded streetcar in his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota.

"Schulz never stopped believing that he had been forsaken and would be left behind, that nobody cared," wrote Michaelis.

I doubt that this one event could have permanently instilled this belief, but it sounds likely that Schultz' earliest experiences made him feel abandoned. His mother may have had a difficult delivery and not been physically or emotionally available to bond with him in the first weeks of life. He may have been sickly and spent more time in the hands of doctors than in his mother's arms. Or his mother may have had a low oxytocin response and not been able to bond with him.

After birth, a baby's brain develops its pattern of oxytocin receptors in response to interaction with the mother or other primary caregiver. Less nurturing and comfort leads to less oxytocin receptors. And, simplistically, it's oxytocin combined with dopamine in the brain's reward system that makes relationship feel good. Oxytocin itself is responsible for that feeling of peace and connection.

So Schultz in turn didn't develop a strong oxytocin response to social intimacy.

Notably, his first wife was demanding and unsympathetic. Perhaps his mom was like that? We tend to feel comfortable with people whose intimacy style is similar to what we learned at home. (See Love and Mom's Spaghetti Sauce for more on this.)

According to Reuters, Schultz's family is unhappy with the biography. They say Schultz was a warm and charming man. Evidently he was able to form a family with people who had stronger and healthier oxytocin responses than he did. But their sense of him as a warm person comes from their own oxytocin responses.

Personally, I always found Peanuts rather cruel, and poor Charlie Brown's constant rejection was more than I could take.

Smells Like Teen Lap Dancing

Kate of Anterior Commissure wrote about a study showing that lapdancers earn more money when they're in the fertile part of their menstrual cycle. Moreover, women with stable hormones thanks to birth control pills earn less than normally cycling women.

The study put this down to "cues" somehow "leaking" out in the interaction between the man and the woman writhing around all over his airspace. Katie, on the other hand, thinks another study may provide a clue.

She says,

Could it be that these females (albeit, uh, provocatively dressed during all dances) were dressed any differently or made themselves up more for the dances performed around estrus, without realizing it? [Update: Or, per deepstructure's suggestion, perhaps fertile females are a bit more "enthusiastic"dancers?]

I think it's the smell. Or, to be more exact, the transfer of molecules between the two people, and their brains' on-the-fly chemical analysis.

Most mammals have a special area in the nose called the vomeronasal organ. This sensitive tissue, located in the nasal passages, sends molecules that the animal inhales directly to the brain, where they can influence behavior. This organ reacts to pheromones, the chemical signaling substances put out by animals from insects to apes. It's the organ that draws a female elephant to the musth secreted by a bull in his prime.

Human fetuses have a vomeronasal organ, and for a long time biologists thought that it was a vestigial structure that disappeared by birth. But recently, researchers have found evidence that the human response to pheromones is alive and well in adults.[i - I am going to let y'all look up these studies yourself.] This is the organ that seems to be responsible, for example, for the tendency of women living together to synchronize their menstrual cycles.

More sex and bonding chemicals may be exchanged via lovers' sweat and saliva, according to preliminary research by Cameron Muir of Brock University.[ii] How we react to the chemicals coming off another person's skin seems to be related to our sexual orientation.

Another study found that the brains of gay men and heterosexual women reacted the same way when they inhaled a testosterone-related compound found in male sweat. A part of the hypothalamus that's different in men and women became activated when these two groups got a whiff of that manly odor, piquing the hypothalamus.[iii] The brains of straight men, straight women, and homosexual men all reacted the same way to lavender oil and cedar oil, the control odors.

Lesbian women, on the other hand, were like heterosexual men in their response to inhaling an estrogen-like compound. Their hypothalami didn't light up at all when they got a whiff of the male scent.[iv]

In another 2005 study, neuroscientists Charles Wysocki and Yolanda Martins of the Monell Chemical Senses Center asked 82 men and women, heterosexual and homosexual, to sniff samples of underarm sweat collected from 24 donors. Like the subjects, the odor donors were male and female, gay and straight.

The gays and lesbians had patterns of body odor preferences that were different from those of the straight men and women. The gay men had the strongest partiality, preferring the B.O. of other gay men and heterosexual women. [v]

Given all this, it's not a stretch to think that the gentleman's club could be a hothouse for hormone-swapping.

[i] Smith, Timothy D. and Bhatnagar, Kunwar P., The human vomeronasal organ. Part II: prenatal development Journal of Anatomy (2000), 197: 421-436

[ii] Holland, Giles, Hot Sweaty Sex: Investigating the ins and outs of human chemical communication (Research Reporter No. 27, March 2006)

[iii] Savic, Ivanka; Berglund, Hans;and Lindström, Per, Brain response to putative pheromones in homosexual men (Neuroscience May 9, 2005, 10.1073/PNAS.0407998102)

[iv] Berglund, Hans; Lindström, Per; and Savic, Ivanka, Brain response to putative pheromones in lesbian women (PNAS, May 23, 2006, Vol. 103, No. 21, pp. 8269–8274)

[v] Wysocki, Charles, Gender and Sexual Orientation Influence Preference for Human Body Odors, Monell Chemical Senses Center press release, May 9 2005

Higher Oxytocin Predicts a Better Mother/Child Bond

A just-published study is the very first to connect oyxtocin in humans to the bond between mother and child.

Numerous animal studies -- in mice, rats and prairie voles -- have shown a strong connection between oxytocin and maternal behavior, while Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg did a series of studies of human mothers showing a relationship between breastfeeding and a mother's feelings of calm and connectedness. But cautious scientists have been reluctant to say what feels so true -- that oxytocin bonds humans in all the ways it does animals.

This study from Bar-Ilan University led by Ruth Feldman found a strong correlation between oxytocin levels and mothers' feelings toward their babies during pregnancy and after birth. From the APS story posted on Scientific Blogging:

Initial levels of oxytocin at the first trimester predicted bonding behavior. Therefore, mothers with a high level of the hormone at the beginning of the pregnancy engaged in more of the aforementioned bonding behaviors after birth.

Additionally, mothers who had higher levels of oxytocin across the pregnancy and the postpartum month also reported more behaviors that support the formation of an exclusive relationship (i.e. singing a special song to the infant, or bathing and feeding them in a special way). These mothers were also more preoccupied by thoughts of checking on the infant, the infant’s safety when they are not around, and the infant’s future.

I reported on this study in my book, ahead of its publication the journal, and corresponded with one of th researchers, Ari Levine. He told me something a bit different -- that it wasn't a mother's oxytocin level, but how much her oxytocin level increased that predicted bonding.

In fact, that's what the study showed:

The increase in OT from early to late pregnancy correlated with higher maternal-fetal bonding.

Protect Me from Hugs

  Monkey Hug 
  Originally uploaded by jamesfarnham.

Alan kindly sent me a link to this article: Oak Park School Bans Hugs.

Hugs are natural and good; they remind our bodies that we have connections we can rely on. Hugging probably releases oxytocin. Come on, it's got to -- but scientists can't get grants to study hugs, it seems.

According to the article, administrators at the school banned hugging because "students [were] forming 'hug lines' that made them late for classes and crowded the hallways."

Evidently "hug lines" are not simple hugs between two people but rather a sort of conga line that can involve ten or more people at once, and this is what was clogging the hallways, according to another news report.

At first, I thought banning hugs was really sad. Okay, I still do. I can see banning hug lines inside the building -- wouldn't that have been enough? It's sad that our culture is becoming more and more touch-phobic.

If you read the comments on the first article, you get a fairly nuanced and broad range of perspectives on this ban, and, by extension, on touching, period. Some people think it's not really hugging, it's groping (touch-negative but probably somewhat accurate). Some people want their kids to focus on schoolwork and getting to class on time (goal-oriented but unrealistic -- school is as much about socialization as it is about learning). And some  bemoan the loss of our ability to reach out to others (I agree, but we're maybe a tad idealistic.)

At bottom, I think we have lost the ability to fine-tune human relationships; we're so all-or-nothing. Sexual abuse of children and unwanted touching by schoolmates is certainly a problem, so let's ban ALL touching, because no one can differentiate.

We NEED touch; we may need touch more than we need to be saved from it.

Fear or Peace in Childbirth

A story in the Sydney Morning Herald contrasts two women's birth experiences to discuss how modern birthing practices -- especially the hospital delivery -- can make childbirth more difficult, frightening and, therefore, painful.

Birth Rights and Wrongs tells the story of two women. One needed to have a forceps delivery after the baby's respiration fell; the other had a meditative, empowering home birth. The woman with the hospital birth had many conflicting feelings -- and a great deal of pain.

The article points out that animals give birth in quiet, secluded places and only when they feel safe. These conditions allow oxytocin to flow, producing rhythmic contractions that speed the infant through the birth canal without undue pain. It takes a balanced approach to the issue of hospital versus home deliveries, while making a case for birthing procedures that are soothing, instead of anxiety-provoking.

Testosterone, Fatherhood and Oxytocin

Something about marriage -- in the sense of cohabiting with a woman and raising children, seems to lower a man's testosterone.

Peter Gray, a University of Nevada researcher, has been measuring testosterone fluctuations in men for several years. He and colleagues test the levels in men's saliva several times over the course of several days. They've found that

Gray is unusual among researchers in that he's extended his studies outside of the U.S. and doesn't confine them to student populations. (Many researchers use students because they're very easy to obtain for studies; sometimes, they're required to participate in studies as part of their coursework. However, this can really skew results, especially when it comes to relationship studies. It's not at all clear that a 19-year-old student's relationships mirror those of a 40-year-old's.) Gray has done studies in China, North Africa and Jamaica.

He's published two new studies. One looked at fathers and non-fathers in Jamaica; the other, in North Africa.

Ariaal men, members of a tribal population that tends to marry late and focus relationships more on other men than on the family, still had lower levels of testosterone than single men. And, while you might expect men with several wives to be high-testosterone (in order to be able to handle all those women), the same thing held true for the polygamous men.

In the other study, in Jamaica, married men had lower testosterone and higher prolactin levels than single men.

Because testosterone mutes the effects of oxytocin, it's possible that this reduction in testosterone is part of a natural process that allows men to be more uxorious and keeps them more available to the family. Prolactin is released in men after orgasm; perhaps -- and this is only my own speculation -- increased sexual activity in marriage is responsible for the higher prolactin and lower testosterone.

Here's an abstract of the Kenyan study: Testosterone and Marriage Among Ariaal Men of Northern Kenya.

Here's a press release about the studies: Marriage and Fatherhood Linked to Lower Testosterone Levels.