After I finished up last weeks doula training, I left class with a specific statement in my mind. Something my Bebo Mia trainer, Natasha Marchand mentioned in our discussion on comfort measures for labour stuck with me: “Endorphins are 200 times stronger than morphine”. We didn’t stay on this exact topic of endorphin’s for long but the idea didn’t leave me, so I knew I had to dive in deeper.
Hormones In Labour
There are many different hormones flowing in our body. They guide much of what happens in pregnancy and prepare our bodies for birth. They also dictate what happens during labour itself and in the months afterward. Some hormones that play an important role in birth are; Oxytocin (the hormone of love, which also stimulates contractions and dilate the cervix), Endorphin’s (the body’s natural pain-relieving hormones), Adrenaline (which can cause labour to stall or stop when women feel frightened) and Prolactin (the “mothering hormone” which is central to breastfeeding and the postpartum period).
The Science Of Endorphin’s
The more we know about endorphins, the better we can optimize these hormones. We can make birth more enjoyable. The word endorphin comes from endogenous (meaning ¨produced by the body”) and morphine (a chemical that blocks pain). Our bodies produce endorphins to help us relax when we’re stressed and to relieve pain when we’re hurting. When our brain detects stress or pain, it produces endorphins and sends them to the receptor sites to alleviate the sensation of pain. During labour endorphin levels rise with every contraction, especially in the second stage of labour.
Natural Pain Relief
As oxytocin starts getting stronger, endorphins actually work to turn down pain processing and bring calmness and relief. Endorphin levels go up as the strength of the contractions goes up. Artificial narcotics work in a similar sense but disrupt the delicate balance of our bodies hormonal cocktail. Instead of small drips, endorphin’s are a steady source of pain relief during labour. Just like artificial narcotics, women experience the effects of endorphins in different ways. Many describe feelings of euphoria, which should be accredited to endorphins. Fear and anxiety counteract the effects of endorphins by increasing the levels of adrenaline, driving the body into a fight or flight response. Releasing tension during contractions and resting between contractions allows these natural pain relievers to flow throughout and help you through labour.
Studies show that mothers having epidural anesthesia tend to have lower endorphin levels, whereas high levels of endorphins in unmedicated labouring mothers are thought to be the reason they experience the “high” after childbirth. Endorphin levels peak at birth but remain in the mother’s brain and bloodstream during the first few weeks afterward. They contribute and have many roles during postpartum days. They help reinforce mothering, mom and baby bonding, and also signal the production of prolactin.
5 Ways To Take Advantage Of Endorphin’s
I’ve learned so much about all the amazing ways endorphin’s work in our bodies. The bigger question I want to answer is how we can optimize these hormones to better our birth experiences. Endorphins are no new discovery. In fact, many childbirth preparation techniques are based on the idea of endorphins (including the GentleBirth workshops we teach here at Bien Aime.) The more we can relax our bodies in labour (whether it’s through controlling our mindset, breathing techniques, visualization, water, or massage) the more our bodies can tune into the oxytocin-endorphin symphony taking place. We can allow for an optimal flow of these hormones. Ensuring an atmosphere where you feel safe, secure and free to follow your instincts is essential.
1. Choose your birth team and the environment.
Having a trusting relationship with your birth team is so important. Allowing only the people that boost your confidence and are supportive of you and your plans will enable you to feel your best. Love and laughter are two things that help all us humans to relax, so why not keep that in mind when choosing our birth team as well!
2. Let labour begin on its own
Our bodies are busy preparing the right mix of hormones in the last weeks and days of our pregnancies, so trust in that. Artificial oxytocin (Pitocin) disrupts the body’s natural production of labour hormones. It makes it harder for us to catch up to the effects in labour with endorphin production.
3. Exercise during pregnancy
When we exercise during pregnancy, we are getting a head start to endorphin production. The research has shown that women who exercise regularly throughout pregnancy have higher levels of endorphins and shorter, less painful births.
4. Practice relaxation techniques
Relaxation techniques taught in childbirth classes such as GentleBirth (click the link to watch a short video!) teach how to optimize the endorphin-oxytocin cocktail. Breathing, visualization, affirmations and massage are essential ways to prepare for childbirth. Everyone is different and practicing a variety of techniques during pregnancy will help you find the things your body needs to relax.
5. Trust birth
Taking the fear out of birth and trusting the process is an important part that is often overlooked. Surround yourself with positive and encouraging birth stories and advice. Trust in the amazing journey you are embarking on!
BONUS Eat chocolate: Staying well hydrated and nourished will help your body have the energy it needs for labour. In addition, studies have shown that chocolate has chemicals that prompt the release of endorphins. Keep some handy for a quick boost of endorphins!
– The Healthy Pregnancy Book: Month by Month, Everything You Need to Know from America’s Baby Experts by Martha Sears and William Sears
Author: Karin Janhunen
Karin is a wife, a mother to two little boys, and a birth enthusiast. She first found her passion through birth photography, is a proud member of the Canadian Birth Photographers Association, and has had her work featured on their website www.birthphotographers.ca. She is also currently working towards her doula certification with bebo mia, all in the hopes of sharing the beauty of birth with every woman she meets.