Our bodies are amazing. A discovery in 1975 changed the way we looked at the capabilities of the human body. It was discovered our pituitary gland secretes a hormone when stimulated by pain. This hormone binds itself to our opioid receptors where it functions similarly to morphine. This interaction causes an excess production of dopamine resulting in a pain relieving effect.
This hormone is called beta-endorphin. A neuropeptide that in current studies has been found to 18 to 33 times more potent than morphine. It activates the mesocorticolimbic dopamine reward system and produces pleasure in association with sex, birth and breastfeeding.
So, what this means is that when good things happen your brain releases a morphine like hormone that makes you feel happy, calm, and feel less pain.
This clearly has huge impacts on labor, birth, and how we understand pain as part if that process.
All of you have, I'm sure, met the lady who swears her labors didn't hurt (hiii! I'm one of them.)
We also have all heard the story of the woman who's labor was the most painful experience of her life.
The question is, "Why do some women have easy, calm, gentle births and some experience extreme pain?".
I wish the answer was easy enough to give in a blog post. The factors that play into a woman's birth experience span back her entire life. But one of the biggest impacts on a woman's pain levels in labor is her levels of beta-endorphins.
Uterine contractions are stimulated by the hormone oxytocin. As contractions build in intensity, your body begins to increase it's production of beta-endorphins. As labor progresses and oxytocin levels rise, your beta-endorphin levels rise as well. Your body works in amazing harmony with itself. If contractions become too intense your body will release high-levels of endorphins which will slow down contractions slightly. This allows a woman to benefit from the analgesic effects of the hormone and handle the intensity of her birth well.
Feeling the slow building of surges is very important to the hormonal release during labor. Women who used relaxation techniques and worked to release fear, stress, and tension were found to spend shorter amounts of time in early labor.
Raised beta-endorphin levels during labor contribute to the “on another planet” feeling that women may experience when they labor without drugs. Some women describe it as feeling "a bit high" or "loopy" or "in my head". It is a natural high caused by our own amazing hormones. This feeling encourages a woman to relax and let go of tension, which results in a more comfortable and shorter labor.
Beta-endorphins peak about 20 minutes postpartum. This helps with postpartum discomfort the mother may be feeling. Beta-endorphins are also passed from mother to baby through breastmilk giving the baby the same pain-relieving benefits. We often forget that the baby feels the strength of each contraction as well. Beta-endorphins passed to baby help reduce their discomfort as well.
Beta-endorphins also play a key role in the hormones of breastfeeding. High levels of beta-endorphin promote the release of prolactin during labor, which prepares the mother’s breast for lactation, plays an important role in bonding, and aids in lung maturation for the baby.
Hormones work in a very delicate symphony and it is very easy to interrupt this process with modern interventions. For example:
Artificial contractions stimulated by the drug Pitocin do not stimulate the release of pain relieving beta-endorphins. This results in a more painful labor. In addition, the contractions caused by pitocin are longer, stronger, and closer together. The majority of women who endure pitocin contractions will require the assistance of pain medications.
Recent studies have found that women who receive the artificial hormone pitocin were more likely to be diagnosed with and treated for postpartum depression and anxiety.
Pain relief medication reduces the amount of beta-endorphins in the laboring woman's blood stream. This has implications for not only mom and baby's postpartum comfort, but also bonding and the success of the breastfeeding relationship.
Interrupting the birth process or causing stress to a birthing woman can effect all birthing hormone levels including beta-endorphin.
According to Childbirth Connection You can enhance your body's production of endorphins during labor and birth by:
staying calm, comfortable, and confident
avoiding disturbances, such as unwelcome people or noise and uncomfortable procedures
delaying or avoiding epidural or opioids as a pain relief method.
Practicing bringing yourself into a state of deep relaxation will encourage your mind and body to be prepared for labor. Overcoming fear, arming yourself with knowledge, and encouraging confidence in your body and your baby are the best ways to ensure a positive birth experience.
I feel it is important to reiterate that no woman should ever suffer during labor. Yes, there are side effects, complications, and risks with pain medication. However, if a woman has transitioned from an intense birthing experience into suffering from the pain then whatever needs to be done should be. Sometimes the best choice in those situations is pain medication.
Create a birth environment that will encourage the release of beta-endorphins. Dim lights, gentle music, privacy, and the gentle touch of a supportive person all can encourage their release.
So, look at all the aspects of your birth.
To encourage the delicate interactions of hormones to play out to her benefit a birthing woman should:
feel safe in her birth environment
feel respected by her care providers
feel supported by her birth partner
feel relaxed and open
feel confident in her strength
feel excited and joyful
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