Oxytocin, the hormone of love, stimulates the release of a chemical messenger called “atrial natriuretic peptide” by cells in the heart muscle. In other words, oxytocin affects the heart! Oxytocin molecules are molecules of love, the neurotransmitters of those warm feelings that make us feel warm and relaxed, kind and helpful towards others, social and friendly rather than terse and defensive, open and receptive rather than hard and aggressive. Let’s project into the future and imagine a world where humans exist in a group state of social cohesion, mutual affection and co-operation. What are the ingredients needed in the physiology of our bodily make-up? and how do we ensure that these ingredients are available to each of us? Oxytocin is released by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain, but without oxytocin receptors in the body, it has a hard time spreading its effects around.
Apparently oxytocin receptor cells exist not only in the uterus, cervix and the breasts, but also in the particular areas of the brain, the heart, the gut, the placenta and the inner layer of the amniotic sac surrounding the baby. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research have just discovered that there are pathways or nerve connections in the brain that transport oxytocin from one part of the brain to another. The inference is that we are wired to release and transport oxytocin. The question is, what are the behaviours that will trigger the inception of optimal neuron requirements for oxytocin in the preborn and newborn human infant. It is known that the brain is plastic and has the capacity to create and grow in leaps and bounds at particular sensitive periods of human development. Parents with high concentrations of oxytocin present in their bodies display more loving and playful attention to their babies and children.
Women need oxytocin receptors in the uterus in order to labour and give birth effectively and it has been found that oxytocin receptor density varies among women. The reasons for this are as yet unknown, however it is possible that women with a history of early traumatic childhood experiences are unable to make sufficient receptor cells for oxytocin as a result of increased levels of cortisol or catecholamines in their system. It is known that survivors of childhood abuse show a decrease in the size of the hippocampus, which is part of the brain involved in emotional responsivity. If oxytocin is such an important mediator of social behaviour then why do we routinely disturb the first contact between mother and baby as well as father and baby?
Conception, pregnancy, birth, newborn period and early childhood would seem to me to be the most critical periods of human development. The known behaviours that stimulate oxytocin release are touch, eye contact, skin to skin contact, movement and dance, laughter, food, play, kindness, empathy, pleasure, togetherness. If these are the situations that create oxytocin receptivity, then our pro-action should be to empower and educate women and men everywhere, to teach young people about preconception, pregnancy, childbirth and parenting, to set up support systems that encourage non-violence and non-separation in maternity care and parenting.
It appears that the institutionalization of human beings at the most critical periods in their lives may well be a dire mistake in terms of our capacity to love each other, to care for our environment and may ultimately put our survival on earth at risk. It also appears that we have the capacity to increase our adaptivity as a species and our capacity for loving social bonds by increasing the chances for optimal oxytocin concentrations in our bodies and brains. Obstetricians, paediatricians, neuroscientists, psychiatrists, psychologists, midwives, doulas and caregivers all need to collaborate on creating a paradigm of love and utilize our inbuilt molecules of love to the fullest possible degree. To do this we will need to humanize maternity care, increase the number of practicing midwives and doulas and facilitate inter-disciplinary collaboration.
It is a public health imperative and it is possible.