Oxytocin; the love hormone, the pair bonding hormone, the cuddle hormone, the breastfeeding hormone, the labor hormone! It is a versatile and powerful natural substance created by our bodies to perform so many important functions. Although oxytocin is well known to be involved in labor and delivery, lactation, and social or romantic relationships, it is also very closely tied with mood, mental health, immune system support, and pain sensitivity. Synthetic oxytocin, or pitocin, is a medication given to pregnant women to induce labor. Induction of labor with pitocin is becoming a very common practice, but is it is safe? The safety of pitocin has been questioned by some researchers as it has been found to be potentially related to unwanted side affects and consequences. Synthetic oxytocin given to induce or augment labor may be related to physical and emotional trauma that many women experience during birth and post-partum. I do not write this to incite fear, but to encourage expecting mothers to become educated and informed about the birth process, potential interventions, and possible risks. I believe knowledge and preparation are related to a positive birth experience.
These statements have not been reviewed by the FDA and are not intended to cure, diagnose, treat, or prevent any medical condition. I am not a doctor or midwife and this is not intended as medical advice. This is my own personal research.
what is oxytocin
Natural oxytocin is a neuropeptide hormone produced by the hypothalamus and secreted by the pituitary gland. In order for it to produce a biological response, it must bind to a receptor. Oxytocin receptors are located in high concentrations in the brain, spinal cord, heart, intestines, immune tissue, uterus, and breast (2). Interestingly enough, the receptor can also be a neuron (neurological cell). When this is the case, the response may induce the release of other hormones including serotonin (mood), natural opioids (pain relief and well being), and the hormone that controls cortisol (stress) levels (2). Oxytocin works on a positive feedback system; meaning an event occurs, oxytocin is released, the event is enhanced, more oxytocin is released, and this process continues until the event is over.
Oxytocin is well known to be involved in social interactions. It can promote trust, enhance interpersonal relatioships (1), and enhance generosity and empathy (10). It mediates the processing of emotion, facial expressions, gaze, eye contact, and may even enhance the reading of body language (1). Oxytocin is also involved in pair bonding and sexual relations (8). It plays a part in sperm development and testosterone production (5).
Oxytocin is intricately involved in mood. It can improve the sense of well being and reduce the symptoms of those suffering from depression and anxiety (8). It has been studied for use in treatment of these conditions as well as autism (6). Oxytocin can also improve the stress response and is associated with decreased plasma cortisol levels (8).
Interestingly enough, oxytocin is also involved in the immune system. A system called the oxytocin secreting system is involved in immune development, strength, and surveillance as well as homeostasis and regulation (3). Oxytocin may inhibit inflammation, produce and suppress inflammatory cytokines, promote wound healing, and suppress the autoimmune response in disease (3). In fact, oxytocin can induce lactic acid bacteria in the gut to accelerate wound healing (7). (ummm, gut health anyone?)
Oxytocin is well known to reduce pain sensitivity and enhance the ability to deal with pain (8). Analgesic effects have been noted in animal studies, and oxytocin is being used as a possible treatment for deep tissue and chronic pain (8). I believe this is one of the reasons women are so able to deal with the pain of labor!
Labor progression is a well studied and known function of oxytocin. Oxytocin release is suppressed in a healthy pregnant woman until term, when it becomes highly available and oxytocin receptors increase greatly in uterine muscle (2). Besides enhancing contractions and progessing labor, oxytocin also rises to help the mother cope with the stress, pain, and fear during labor and the post-partum period (2). Pitocin (synthetic oxytocin) is commonly used to induce and progress labor. It is not entirely known what the long term and post-partum effects of this practice are, however some researchers have taken the time to study this. Some of these studies have shown that pitocin induced labor decreases the sensitivity of the oxytocin receptors in uterine muscles 300 fold causing the hormone to naturally bind to the receptors found in other parts of the body (2). Naturally occurring maternal oxytocin is known the cross the fetal blood brain barrier and protect the infant from hypoxia (low oxygen) (2), however it has also been demonstrated that synthetic oxytocin reaches the fetal brain with unknown consequences (4). The results of this practice should be further studied, as some recent research has suggested the use pitocin to be linked to post-partum depression in mothers (6).
Pitocin is given in drip form during labor, in contrast to naturally occurring oxytocin which is released in bursts due to the positive feedback loop. It’s effects are almost immediate, and it is cleared from the bloodstream within a couple hours (11). In some cases, intramuscular synthetic oxytocin is given after labor to enhance the expelling of the placenta (11). Alongside the common severe and unrelenting contractions, the use of synthetic oxytocin in labor has the potential for side affects such as uterine tachysystole (excessive frequent contractions), uterine rupture, hemorrhage, fetal hypoxia, impaired fetal heart rate, and fetal brain damage (9). In one study of 338 women, synthetic oxytocin was associated with a higher C-section rate, higher epidural rate, intrapartum (during birth) fever, an acidic pH of the umbilical cord blood, and neonatal resuscitation (9). These results have been duplicated in another study that showed higher C-section rates and vacuum delivery with synthetic oxytocin, but other studies have contradicted these results. This is potentially due to extraneous variables. Though I can’t say if pitocin directly causes adverse birth events, it is my opinion that it’s use is often associated with a negative birth experience and more medical interventions.
Naturally occurring oxytocin is an intricate part of the breastfeeding experience, as it is released in response to infant suckling in order to enhance milk production (5). It also induces the uterus to shrink back to a normal size after labor as well as helps the mother deal with post-partum stress (2). Pitocin use, however, should be further studied, as some research has linked epidural and pitocin use to significantly lower oxytocin levels during lactation and negative breastfeeding success (2). High doses of synthetic oxytocin may desensitize the breast oxytocin receptors just as it does the uterine receptors and could perhaps weaken the milk let down reflex as well as the hormonal response to infant suckling (4).
pitocin, yes or no?
It is commonly known within the realm of mothers that induction of labor often leads to many other medical interventions including epidural, C-section, blood transfusion, antibiotics, and longer hospital stays. These traumatic deliveries decrease infant bonding time, skin to skin time, breastfeeding success, and general feeling of well being after birth. It disheartens me greatly that so many women have had their positive birth story robbed from them with unnecessary interventions. I was not willing to risk that without absolute medically necessary need. For me, the risks and downsides were not worth it, and thankfully I was blessed with a labor where pitocin was not even a consideration.
Because of all the extraneous variables, including pitocin dose, time of administration, pre-existing conditions, previous mental health, means of birth, parity, age, and partner support it is not within my means to confirm any causation, however, the risks are real. I do not pretend to be an expert at all the various events that occur during labor and delivery that may or may not require intervention. It is up to the mother to do her due diligence beforehand, learn about her options, become educated about the risks of intervention, and form a trust relationship with her medical practitioner, midwife, and support group.
The use of pitocin in labor is a complex topic with many variables that are beyond the scope of this article and my knowledge. It is a personal decision you have to make with your partner and your healthcare practitioner. I am not a midwife, nor a doctor, so please consults yours about any concerns you may have. This is not intended to be taken as medical advice. I am just sharing my own personal research and my story.
Hormones are incredibly complex and intricate molecules that functions on highly complex feedback systems that involve many parts of the body. Natural oxytocin is not only involved with labor and breastfeeding but also mood, immune function, and pair bonding. I wonder what the consequences of the addition of a synthetic form of this hormone are. Because the natural feedback loops involve not only uterine contractions but also mood, fear, stress, and lactation, it concerns me that a synthetic version of this hormone could potentially interfere greatly with the natural process of birth, infant bonding, lactation, and postpartum success.
However, it must be noted that certain situations may require an intervention such as pitocin, and that is why it is important to be informed about the risks, but also educated about the implications of not using it when it could be necessary. Childbirth is complex, and at times the benefits of pitocin will outweigh the risks. Sometimes, it’s use is medically necessary, and life saving for mom and baby. It is important to have a trusted relationship with your midwife or OB so that you can determine if that is your situation.
I will conclude this this: no mother should ever feel regret, sorrow, or shame about her birth story (no matter what happened) and I mean that with my whole heart. Whether entirely natural, epidural and pitocin augmented, or C-section, bringing a child into this world is one of the most beautiful and bravest experiences a woman can have.
Every mother should be proud of her birth story.
- Influence of oxytocin on emotion recognition from body language: A randomized placebo-controlled trial
- BEYOND LABOR: THE ROLE OF NATURAL AND SYNTHETIC OXYTOCIN IN THE TRANSITION TO MOTHERHOOD
- Approaches Mediating Oxytocin Regulation of the Immune System
- Synthetic oxytocin and breastfeeding: Reasons for testing an hypothesis
- What Does Oxytocin Do?
- Association of peripartum synthetic oxytocin administration and depressive and anxiety disorders
- Microbial Symbionts Accelerate Wound Healing via the Neuropeptide Hormone Oxytocin
- Oxytocin – A Multifunctional Analgesic for Chronic Deep Tissue Pain
- Labor stimulation with oxytocin: effects on obstetrical and neonatal outcomes
- Relations between plasma oxytocin and cortisol: The stress buffering role of social support
- Pitocin: FDA description
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