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November 2007
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January 2008

A Friend or Family Makes for a Happy Birth

Doulas are trained to assist and support a woman during labor and childbirth. They're not nurses or midwives, so they don't help with the actual birth. But they provide physical and emotional comfort, everything from chatting with you to holding you while you cry to massaging you.

Susan Spicer of reported on a study showing that a friend or family member can successfully stand in for a doula after just four hours of training. The study of 600 women found that having a lay doula significantly shortened labor.

Spicer points out that getting emotional support from someone likely helps you release oxytocin, the hormone of love and connection and also the hormone that speeds childbirth.

So, even if you don't plan to have a midwife or doula, you might want to have a designated friend. I imagine the training focuses on how to keep the laboring woman -- and yourself -- calm.

Get Your Oxytocin Online

... and I don't mean by buying a spray.

People engage in social networks for the same reasons they interact with others in real life, according to a paper by Communispace, a company that builds and manages communities for businesses.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow had a theory of the hierarchy of needs: The needs range from food and shelter up to self-actualization, and he believed we could only  work on fulfilling the higher ones after the more basic needs were met.

Communispace staffers Julie Wittes Schlack, Michael Jennings and Manila Austin write that people can use social networking (the more trendy term for what we used to call online community) to meet their needs for belonging, self-esteem and such:

Communispace’s hypothesis: people are looking to fulfill six essential social needs online, and the organizations that understand this and build the right kind of social networking opportunity are more likely to create deeper emotional bonds than usually exist between companies and customers.

I think they're right. I would just add that people may also release oxytocin in these virtual interactions, just as they do IRL. Paul Zak of Claremont Graduate University has shown that inhaling oxytocin affects how we behave online, which indicate to me that computer-mediated interactions feel real to us -- and therefore affect us just like face-to-face encounters do.

You can download the complete paper with registration.

Quiz: Is It True Love?

I write a lot about the difference between romantic love -- which never lasts -- and what I call "true love." To me, true love is the deep, emotional and physical bond that's based on oxytocin.

I wrote a quiz that's not super-scientific, so don't go making any important decisions based on it. But it should give you some insight into the basis of your relationship.

You can find it here: Is It True Love?

For Orphans, There's a Critical Period for Nurturing

In the United States and some other countries, there's awareness that babies in orphanages need to have a primary caregiver -- someone they can bond with. If they don't, they will likely grow up with many psychological and cognitive problems. Babies need loving touch for proper brain development and to develop the oxytocin response that will teach them to bond with others.

The foster care system in the United States is far from perfect -- far, far from perfect. But many nations still have a policy of caring for orphans in institutions, rather than in foster homes. It's partly a question of resources; in an institution, one person can care for many more children.

Researchers from the University of Maryland, led by Nathan Fox, just published the results of a years-long study in Romania in which they compared the development of children in orphanages to those in foster homes.

In one orphanage in the study, the ration of caregiver to children was 1 to 22. If each worker worked an eight-hour shift, she could spend less than 22 minutes a shift on each child. Think about a baby who is changed, fed and touched for no more than one hour each day.

The researchers moved half of the 156 children in the study into foster homes and left the rest in institutions. They could do this ethically because there was no foster care system in Romania at this time -- they had to set one up.

According to the article in Science Daily,

The main findings from the study confirmed earlier results that "children reared in institutions showed greatly diminished intellectual performance relative to children reared in their families of origin." Further, children who were randomly assigned to foster care experienced "significant gains in cognitive function."

They didn't look at attachment, but certainly, the longer the children stayed in the institution, the more attachment problems they had. These are expressed in what we now call reactive attachment disorder, oppositional defiance disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.  (Institutionalized babies develop PTSD because their bodies instinctively "know" that if they're separated from their mothers, they will die.)

The researchers also found that 24 months was the critical age for children to benefit from placement into a foster home.

But, the sooner the better! And of course, adoption into a permanent home is the best outcome.

Oxytocin Could Influence Menstrual Pain

Research led by Ragner Liedman of the University of Lund in Sweden has uncovered a possible role for oxytocin in dysmenorrhoea, commonly known as menstrual cramps.

The researchers took biopsies at the time of ovulation from the endometria of normally menstruating women and those who experienced cramps. They looked at gene expression for the receptors for oxytocin, vasopressin (a related peptide), estrogen and progesterone.  And they found a difference in the oxytocin receptors in the women experiencing painful periods.
Here's the nut graph of the study abstract:

The gene expression for oxytocin receptor was significantly lower in dysmenorrhoic than in healthy women, in median 1.21 and 3.44 oxytocin-receptor/actin, respectively (p = 0.048). The expressions for oxytocin peptide, vasopressin V1a receptor, oestrogen receptor α, β and progesterone receptor did not differ between the two groups. Expression of vasopressin peptide was not detectable.

It's important to note that they were not looking at oxytocin levels. Receptors are cellular structures that allow a cell to take in a specific chemical. So, if you have fewer of them in an area, that area won't be able to use as much of a chemical, even if it's circulating through the body.

The other thing to note is that the number, distribution and sensitivity of these receptors seem to vary. You could think if them as algae blooms: the algae are always in the water, but sometimes external conditions make them suddenly proliferate. We're born with the genes to create oxytocin receptors; but external circumstances, from the cellular level out to beyond the skin, "turn on" or "off" these genes. When a gene is turned on, it's known as gene expression.

The first stimulus to expression of the oxytocin gene seems to be immediately after birth. In rats, the mother's licking and grooming of her babies causes oxytocin receptors to proliferate. Babies that don't get as much grooming develop fewer oxytocin receptors.

Oxytocin receptors in the uterus also proliferate during pregnancy and especially right before childbirth.

So, I wonder if there might be a link between very early experiences of nurturing as a baby and later menstrual cramps.

I also wonder if oxytocin might be a good remedy for dysmenorrhoea. Kerstin Uvnas Moberg, a Swedish researcher and author of "The Oxytocin Factor," found that an oxytocin gel applied to the vulva was an excellent remedy for symptoms of menopause, including vaginal dryness and hot flashes. She was trying to form a company and begin marketing this, but ran into some difficulties. Dysmenorrhoea could be another area for her.

Two of the researchers on the team are with Pfizer Global Research, so maybe they're also thinking about this.

Meanwhile, I can think of a good home remedy for cramps: have terrific sex by yourself or with someone else. Of course, that's about the last thing most of us feel like doing at that time.

Get Over Romance! Please, please, please?

Still another article bemoaning the way "love" dies -- that is, the intense romantic euphoria at the beginning of love.

Sumiko Tan, writing in the The Star, knows about Helen Fisher's three stages of love: lust, attraction (AKA romance) and attachment. And yet, she still believes in and perpetuates modern society's emphasis on only the early stages. She writes,

We place the institution on a pedestal and cling to fairytale ideals and images even when all around us we see daily evidence of how married life can, in fact, be pretty dreary and dreadful, the grind of housework, finances to be managed, children’s homework to be supervised and just general petty marital annoyances.

Yet, when I hear that couples I know are divorcing, I always feel sad and even let down.

How can it be that if you’ve been lucky enough to find the love of your life (for you must have, to have married each other, right?), you can no longer bear to be in each other’s company? How can you let that love slip away?

Come on, girl. Instead of this slipping away, losing metaphor, let's think of a love relationship as, oh, how about a flower? The bud may seem like the prettiest and most desirable part to us, but that flower has plenty of work to do after the petals drop. It grows and evolves and bears fruit or seeds that can start a new life or nourish other lives.

Be A Bitch for Biz Success?

Is there a hormonal glass ceiling? Are happy women just too nice to be successful?

That's the premise of this column by Deborah Hill Cone in the New Zealand Herald. Cone says that women's natural -- although not universal or all-the-time -- tendency to be loving connectors instead of hard-assed competitors may keep us from succeeding in the cutthroat world of commerce.

Cone writes,

So that's the choice, gals. You can either be happy and boring and grow fresh herbs or you can be a shrew with a six-figure income, quick wit and good shoes.

The difference, she says, is how much oxytocin is flushing your body. When you're loving and contented, you're happy to stay home and vegetate. Only the mean and bitter woman has what it takes to succeed in a man's world.

Except it's not true -- and a couple of men have used hard facts and figures to prove it. In several papers, Paul Zak (I'm a huge fan) and Stephen Knack showed that countries that had more trusting cultures also were more productive. (One of the things they looked at was the amount of estrogens circulating through the country, for example, through tofu consumption. For more, see their 2002 paper, Building Trust: Public Policy, Interpersonal Trust, and Economic Development

Oxytocin to Treat Social Anxiety Disorder

A Monash University prof has won a $100,000 grant for a two-year study of the use of inhaled oxytocin to treat social anxiety disorder.

Social anxiety disorder, or SAD, is also known as social phobia. It's a subset of generalized anxiety disorder. With SAD, you feel crippling anxiety and dread when faced with social occasions of all kinds: going to a party, even going to work or to school, speaking up at a meeting, eating at a restaurant.

It's an extremely common anxiety disorder, and it hampers your ability to succeed in life and in relationships.

Pradeep Nathan, an associate professor in the School of Psychology, Psychiatry and Psychological Medicine at Monash in Australia, will begin recruiting subjects for his study.

His theory is that, because people with SAD have -- among other things -- shown abnormal reactivity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotions, especially the negative ones of fear and anger, and oxytocin calms the amygdala, inhaling some should reduce the symptoms.

The problem with oxytocin inhalants as drugs to treat pervasive, continuing conditions like social phobia is that its effects don't last very long, and the oxytocin stings pretty badly when you inhale it. Some companies, including Nastech, are working on longer-lasting inhalants using oxytocin or carbetocin, a synthetic form.

For you anxious Aussies who might want to participate, you can reach Nathan and PhD student Izelle Labuschagne at Pradeep.Nathan at or Izelle.Labuschagne at or +61 3 990 53952.

Gee, You Smell Great All Over

More evidence that the human ability to take in information molecules, sometimes known as pheromones, comes from a study by Wen Li of the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine.

The study found that smells below the level of conscious discrimination influenced people's feelings about others. The researchers had subjects sniff three vials, containing a lemon scent, the scent of sweat and a neutral scent. Afterwards, they were shown photos of neutral faces and asked to rate them from unlikeable to extremely likable.

Those who could detect the smells tended not to be biased by them, but those who could not detect the smells tended, I suppose, to rate faces as less likable after inhaling the unpleasant odor.

According to the article,

The acute sensitivity of human olfaction tends to be underappreciated. "In general, people tend to be dismissive of human olfaction and discount the role that smell plays in our everyday life," said Gottfried. "Our study offers direct evidence that human social behavior is under the influence of miniscule amounts of odor, at concentrations too low to be consciously perceived, indicating that the human sense of smell is much keener than commonly thought."

If we're able to process molecules taken in through our noses -- possibly through the vomeronasal organ -- it means that we might be influenced by molecules of oxytocin released by another person.

See also, Gee, Your Hair Smells ... mmm, Smells Like Teen Lapdancing and You Smell (Oxytocin)

Here's a link to the abstract of the study, Subliminal Smells Can Guide Social Preferences.

Clingy Babies Make Confident Adults

To develop a healthy oxytocin response, a person needs to have a warm, secure and loving environment as a baby. Now, some people worry that coddling a young child will make him or her shy, clingy or needy.

Well, a child is needy; she needs everything from her parents. She has no way of getting anything she needs without them.

Children who grow up with a lot of love have a less reactive fear response and they're more open to connecting with other people. It's a recipe for healthy adulthood.

A study from the University of Haifa confirms this. Irit Yanir found that young adults who regularly spent time with their parents and felt comfortable sharing feelings with them were actually better able to cope with the responsibilities of adulthood:

While a close relationship is often viewed as a sign of dependence, the research results show that those with close relationships with their parents were more financially self-sufficient, more independent in their day-to-day lives, professionally stable, felt more mature and were more likely to be involved in a stable intimate relationship.