Have you ever been in love? The butterflies in your stomach flutter every time your hands touch. A rush of emotions floods your senses when you hear your loved one’s voice. It’s as if you had no control of the intensity of your feelings. Whether it’s a general sense of love or intimate love, our bodies will produce chemicals that drive our loving feelings. The love hormone (oxytocin), in particular, plays a key role in our love lives. Oxytocin drives our emotions and is pivotal for entrance into motherhood.
It’s no surprise that love and motherhood intertwine in fascinating ways. As expectant mothers, we hear of the strong bond we will have with our new baby. We will become mama bears. The love we feel for our young pushes us to be immensely protective of them. In turn, our children look to us in trust to help them regulate emotions.
Everyone produces oxytocin in all stages of life. It enhances social interactions, helps us cope with stress, and leads to relationship building. This love hormone is triggered with hugging, kissing, touching, sex and other loving gestures. The effects of oxytocin production lead to feelings of empathy, trust, connection, and relaxation.
Love begins as life begins. Oxytocin is essential to the birth and breastfeeding process. Since women experience the majority of the stages of reproduction, the love hormone will be triggered more often for them. Current studies show that high levels of oxytocin during pregnancy increase bonding behaviors in mothers and their newborns. New fathers can have increased levels of oxytocin too.
During birth, high levels of the love hormone stimulate contractions. Contractions are necessary to deliver the baby, expel the placenta, and close down uterine blood vessels. As a laboring woman’s oxytocin increases, so do her feel-good hormones (endorphins). It’s nature’s way of helping women cope with the pain of labor. Amazing, isn’t it? Science has even created oxytocin (pitocin) for use in obstetrics and gynecology. Pitocin strengthens contractions very effectively. However, it may not increase endorphins, causing more discomfort. During labor, several things such as bright lights, interruption, and stress increase adrenaline. This hinders a woman’s oxytocin production. Which is why comfort measures are encouraged to help women cope better.
In addition to endorphins, other hormones interact with the love hormone during reproduction. Have you heard of melatonin? It aids in sleep. It’s released in a dark and quiet environment. Melatonin helps boost oxytocin. This is why we feel warmth and calming during a candlelight dinner, or as we go to bed. It’s this combo of hormones that helps us relax during labor contractions. Or, find our partner’s lips in the middle of the night. When a woman breastfeeds, she produces a hormone called prolactin. Prolactin makes breast milk and oxytocin delivers it. Some women will feel a tingling or pressure sensation in the breast signaling a milk let-down (release). This is the work of oxytocin.
Oxytocin affects people differently and levels of it vary from person to person. We do know that loving, positive actions and feelings can help increase it. It makes sense that it’s being studied for its effects on anxiety and depression. Eventhough mothers encounter the love hormone often, many do struggle with postpartum anxiety and depression. Research is just starting to uncover the fascinating role of the love hormone. While science continues to explore this, motherhood will continue to define love.