The Magic of Oxytocin: Beyond birth + breastfeeding.

Oxytocin is a hormone most often associated with birthing and breastfeeding babies but it’s role expands beyond these specific experiences of early mothering.

In its neuroprotective role in the presence of stress, oxytocin has a significant potential to nurture resilience throughout our lifetimes. It’s anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anxiety reducing and parasympathetic effects have a widespread impact on health and wellbeing.

And, oxytocin receptors are located in the areas of the nervous system that regulate social, emotional and adaptive behaviours, as well as in the heart, gut, metabolic and immune systems. As we explore the various roles of oxytocin below, I invite you to consider how nourishing oxytocin release in your body, has the potential to support you, wherever you are on your mothering journey.

Oxytocin, Social Support + the Nervous System

Through pathways in the autonomic nervous system, oxytocin is involved in social attachment and engagement, modulating different forms of emotional dysregulation and facial expression, as well as the maternal behaviour of immobilization (stillness) without fear.
Amidst chronic stress, high levels of social support engages the oxytocin response to facilitate the protective and restorative functions of the vagus nerve, reduce the fight/flight response and protect against the freeze response (shutting down/immobilization with fear). As a result, there is an increased sense of psychological safety, emotional regulation and autonomic stability (stress resilience), all of which support mental health and overall wellbeing.
In the postpartum period, research has shown this has a protective effect on the risk of postpartum depression.
Without social support or other oxytocin nourishing strategies, chronic stress increases nervous system dysregulation and reduces the beneficial effects of oxytocin throughout the body.

Oxytocin, the Gut + the Nervous System

The modulation of social connection by oxytocin is dependent on gut-brain signaling via the vagus nerve. In addition, oxytocin is gut protective and anti-inflammatory during the microbial colonization of birth and breastfeeding and continues throughout life.

Oxytocin receptors in the gut tissues (enterocytes) and the gut associated nervous system (enteric neurons) respond to oxytocin exposure from colostrum and mature milk during breastfeeding to protect the gut cells (enterocytes).

And, within the gut microbiome, Lactobacillus reuteri stimulates the vagus nerve to promote release of oxytocin in the body.

Oxytocin + Wound Healing

Oxytocin’s role in wound healing is also mediated through the vagus nerve stimulation by L.reuteri, increasing oxytocin throughout the body. It’s anti-inflammatory action is tissue restorative, particularly in the nervous system, intestines and cardiovascular system.

Stress + the Nervous System of the Breastfeeding Dyad

The social nervous system links the functioning of the vagus nerve with four other cranial nerves (V, VII, IX, XI), all together responsible for sucking, swallowing, voice, breathing, middle ear muscles, heart rate, ingesting, facial expression and head movements.
The nervous systems of a mother and her baby are intimately connected to one another. In its immaturity, the infant nervous system cannot self-regulate (AKA self soothe). It depends on the nervous system of its caregivers to co-regulate, in order to fall asleep, to efficiently access innate feeding reflexes and to navigate survival, growth and development in our wild world.
What happens when a mother’s nervous system is persistently dysregulated – experiencing any combination of fight/flight/freeze in response to birth trauma and/or not receiving the support she needs throughout postpartum?
A dysregulated adult nervous system has the potential to activate a similar response in an infant nervous system. And, when fight/flight/freeze is act, the activation of their nervous system with fight, flight and/or freeze will increase, the effects of oxytocin are reduced, until there is access to social support or strategies for recognizing dysregulation and shifting towards regulation.
That means while fight/flight/freeze is activated in the baby, the social nervous system is deactivated and the nerves involved in feeding and the coordination of suck, swallow, breathe are inhibited. This can contribute to fussiness, frustration and sleepiness at the breast, magnifying feeding challenges and increasing the symptoms that may also be associated with low milk supply, oral ties, newborn jaundice and physical discomfort. When breastfeeding challenges arise, it is therefore necessary to assess a mother’s experiences of stress and support her in navigating the restoration of nervous system regulation, in order to optimize other feeding support recommendations.

Nourishing Oxytocin

Now, with all of this in mind, you may be wondering – how do I nourish my own oxytocin response?
Social connection. Who helps you feel heard, held and whole? Who listens without judgement? Who only offers advice when you ask for it? Who helps you laugh?
Healthy gut. How often are you having healthy bowel movements? Where are you including probiotic foods in your nutrition? If you’re taking a probiotic supplement, does it contain Lactobacillus reuteri? (If it doesn’t, be sure to chat with your naturopathic doctor about other options!)
Connect with Nature. Nature has its own nervous system. Try co-regulating with Nature by making direct contact with the Earth – feet or hands on the grass, laying on the ground, hugging a tree – and take some slow, deep breaths.
Self-soothing. What helps you feel soothed, safe, relaxed? A soft warm blanket? The scent of essential oils? A dark room with candles lit or twinkle lights? A warm bath? Gentle self massage? Rocking or swaying? Music? Humming? A breath practice? Think of all of the ways you’ve explored soothing a baby – how could those strategies be applied to soothing yourself?
Carter, Kenkel, MacLean et al. Is Oxytocin Nature's Medicine? Pharmacol Rev Oct 2020, 72:829-861.
Porges. The polyvagal theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system. Cleve Clin J Med Apr 2009. 76(Suppl 2)” S86-S90.