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Natural Homebirth Tips, Spiritual Homebirth, Childbirth Education
Prefer to Listen? Find the accompanying podcast episode on the Unschooled Homebirth podcast, Episode 30, wherever you get your podcasts!
Hormones - your body’s messengers, chemicals you make to set things in motion in your body 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. The systems of these little chemical packages, primarily the endocrine system and also the nervous system, are some of the most complex systems of your body because they influence everything else in your body, the respond to everything happening in and around your body, in fact, these little chemicals may even save your life in the event of an acute threat, and we know they are intimately involved in pregnancy and birth, which is going to be my focus today as we dive into some expanded perspectives of hormones, probably in some ways you have never heard before as we explore the side of your hormones those pregnancy books never told you about.
Hormones are the mysterious messengers of your body. These little chemicals are so complicated to understand because they are so mobile and so constantly in flux that we have probably only scratched the surface of what there is to understand about how they work and what they are really doing. We know that hormones are released in response to a stimulus and they travel to a receptor where they cause a reaction from a cell, so for example, you hear a lion roar in the bush next to you, your brain, specifically the pituitary gland, releases a hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone, which travels very quickly to your adrenal gland, attaches to cell receptors on your adrenal cortex, the outer layer of your adrenal gland, which triggers your adrenals to make cortisol. Meanwhile your sympathetic nervous system triggers the internal layer of your adrenal glands to produce adrenaline. These hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, enact all the actions of your fight-or-flight response, so you can feed your muscles and your heart and increase your tissue oxygen levels to sustain an escape or a fight. What's amazing about your hormones is that if you were faced with the lion roaring in the bush next to you, your cortisol and adrenaline would be triggered and rushing through your bloodstream faster than you could repeat this sentence!
Whether you think about your hormones or not, they are acting for you and if you understand a little bit about how they work and what they do, you might be able to help them work better for you during your pregnancy, and see how they work best in labor when you don't think about them at all.
First, I want to cover a little about the concept of hormones as expressed in Chinese medicine, in which hormones are really related more to what we call emotions - follow along for a minute, we are jumping into the circular learning here, some of the concepts will likely be a little foreign at first, but we will work through it one step at a time. Emotions exist in different levels in Chinese medicine, there are submerged emotions that guide you through your life, and since they are submerged, they don't show on your exterior like the emotions we think of when we say emotions, instead the purpose of submerged emotions is to set your regular patterns and rhythms for life, for instance, to alert you when we are hungry, signal when you are tired, wake you when you are rested, alert you when you are in danger, or arouse you when you are fertile, just to name a few of the many actions you can thank our hormones for. At the next level of emotion, you have your expressed emotions, those that we think of more commonly as emotion, and these are also result of hormones - when you feel angry, happy, worried or sad, there is always a hormone from your internal feelings reflected on your external expression, unless you choose to override the message.
That's the really quick and concise version of submerged and expressed emotions and the roles they play in orchestrating the rhythms of your life. I do go into more depth about this topic, about what these patterns look like, how they harmonize or fall out of harmony, how they line up with and express in birth, going from submerged to expressed and exactly what it means to go from submerged to expressed all the time, but especially during the birth process, all of this is covered in depth in the Natural Birth Compass Online Childbirth Course It is such an important part of the birth process because it helps you and your birth partner understand what is happening and where you are in the birth cycle. So if you are interested in learning more about this and incorporating it into your birth preparations, you can check that out at NaturalBirthCompass.com/course.
Now let's continue to spiral down into this topic of hormones while we also weave in the idea of submerged and expressed emotions. Hormones are generated and released based on signals from both your internal and external environment and the changes constantly happening in and around your body.
Some hormones act fast, and you feel them strongly, like adrenaline and epinephrine after a scare or a rush of extreme excitement, while some have a slower effect like melatonin, your hormone of sleep, and some you may not feel at all, like thyroid stimulating hormone, which communicates with your thyroid gland to produce thyroid hormone, though we don’t really feel it happening at all, unless it goes very wrong.
Some hormones trigger other hormones, or a chain or hormones, like gonadotropin releasing hormone, which triggers follicle stimulating hormone, which then travels from your brain to your ovaries to assist with the maturation of your follicles and eggs, if you’re a woman. Other hormones act directly on the tissue, organ or cells they target, like insulin binding to glucose receptors on your cells in response to rising blood sugar levels after you eat carbohydrates.
As we cover specific hormones, keep in mind that all of your hormones have different rhythms, different responses, different rates of perception in your awareness and different reasons that they are emitted. I'm not going to cover every hormone in this article, but I do want to share some particularly interesting hormones and some insights into each of these hormones or hormone patterns so you can develop a deeper appreciation for what it is your hormones do and use that to develop practices to support them in your birth and postpartum weeks.
Hormones as emotions
Lets come back for a moment to this concept of hormones as emotions as we discuss melatonin, the hormone of sleep, produced in your brain by a little gland called the pineal gland. This hormone induces a state of disconnecting from the external world, this EarthIy plane you live in everyday to return to a state of harmonizing with nature. This state of disconnecting we call feeling tired and going to sleep. In response to internal and external cues, such as changing light levels, you start to feel tired, you realize it's late and time to put you and your growing baby to bed, so you move your body from a position of physically separate from the earth, in the vertical or upright position, to laying horizontal with the earth, you close your eyes, disconnect your senses and return to a state of almost non-existence, where you dream, alive but not fully connected to your waking awareness. Sleep is an important time for your body to repair, regenerate and grow your baby. If you didn't have melatonin and never felt tired so you decided you didn't need to sleep or just forgot to sleep, it would dramatically effect your health, your baby's growth, the health of your pregnancy and even your long term health, so your body has an incredible mechanism in the form of the melatonin messenger to help your body feel the need for sleep and usually sleep through the night. This is a great example of submerged versus expressed emotions, where you feel sleep, but it is under the surface, it's a feeling to you, but it doesn't necessarily show up on the surface unless you reach an extreme state of fatigue. But, if you don't get sleep, you will likely start to express that on the surface usually with irritability. But, by harmonizing with natural cycles, your eyes register the changes in daylight, signaling your pineal gland to release melatonin, telling your brain and body that it is time for sleep.
And while we are here, deep in the pineal gland, I just want to address the hormone dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, a hormone that is active only during peak experiences, such as during birth. Outside of peak experiences, it is rapidly degraded so it is hard to understand the effect of this hormone since it is not a part of our day to day life. This hormone probably plays a part in helping a laboring woman to go deep into her labor, going inward and disconnecting from the exterior so she can move through the process of birth with little conscious awareness of her body experiencing, in other words, she can let go of control and succumb to the delta or even theta wavelengths her laboring brain is capable of experiencing. In a calm and undisturbed birth in the right environment, DMT is excretion rises while the enzyme that degrades it is suppressed allowing her access to this powerful hormone during the experience of her birth.
The last thing I want to bring up in regard to the pineal gland that is interesting to think about is that your pineal gland is accessed at the vertex of your head. What might come to mind for you when I say vertex is that this is the term in the optimal fetal positioning that you and your care provider are looking for in the final weeks of your pregnancy, which means when your baby is born in the traditional vertex position, the pineal gland area of the head is what presents first to the world, during the peak experience of birth, the transition from intrauterine to extrauterine, like leaving the dreamy otherworldly world of sleep behind to return to the waking reality of your everyday life connected to the greater world around you. This is the point in your baby's development when all the connections change and expand, something that might speak to the importance of an uninterrupted postpartum period whenever possible.
Your hormones as messengers of time and cycles and this idea of submerged emotions is clear also in the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, where the hormones that are all about harmonizing all of your cycles are generated - your menstrual cycle, your fertility, and other rhythms in your life, these are all related to these glands, often called the master glands, that are in your brain.
Your hypothalamus, serves as the connection between your nervous system and your endocrine system. Your hypothalamus connects directly to your posterior pituitary gland, where two hormones are made that are important to pregnancy, birth and postpartum and breastfeeding. First is the well known oxytocin, the hormone of love as it is often referred. This is the hormone that contracts smooth muscle, so it plays a huge role in labor for your uterine contractions, and in breastfeeding by acting on the mammary glands to help with the milk ejection reflex because it contracts the smooth muscles of the mammary glands. Your posterior pituitary gland also makes ADH, anti-diuretic hormone or vasopressin as it is also called. This hormone, as implied by it's name, inhibits urination to maintain body fluid to keep it in the blood vessels, which helps with maintaining blood pressure and electrolyte balance. One of the interesting and less discussed roles of ADH in and after labor is that it can work with oxytocin in the event of a postpartum hemorrhage to limit fluid loss, so in the case of a postpartum hemorrhage, oxytocin contracts the smooth muscle of the blood vessels and the uterus itself, while ADH is rapidly secreted to return fluids from the kidney back into blood circulation to raise blood pressure and keep blood flowing through the heart and to the mothers brain - quite an amazing built in emergency mechanism our body adapted. Now please don't misunderstand my message here, I am not saying to forgo medical attention in the case of a severe hemorrhage and expect your hormones to be able to save your life and reverse the hemorrhage, I am saying that your body is also naturally helping to limit the severity while your care provider uses their emergency tools as needed to stop the hemorrhage, and your hormones do this without you needing to make it happen, so be impressed with your body, take care of it so it can take of you, and then use emergency medicine if or when necessary.
As I mentioned earlier, the hypothalamus and pituitary gland are intimately involved in many of your cycles and connections with nature, though I won't go into depth about them today, but to name just a few, of course you have the well known menstrual cycle staying in time as a result of the hypothalamic, pituitary, ovarian (HPO) connection cycling with the timing of a moon cycle. You have the corticotropic hormones from the adrenal glands resulting from the hypothalamic, pituitary, adrenal (HPA) connection cycling with the timing of the sun. And you have more random cycles, such as the prolactin hormone cycling with the hunger of your baby, a cycle that is changing and adaptable with your baby's growing demands. There are several others I won't get into today, but what is important to remember is that when these cycles are in sync with the natural rhythms of nature and your hormones are serving as the messenger between nature outside and your internal environment inside, your emotions are better able to stay submerged, you are better able to stay in natural rhythms and be naturally guided toward maintaining health and vitality. But when they are out of sync, you might start to see it on the surface, either as physical dysfunction or as difficulty with settling emotions in a way that feels good. This can be one factor in a labor that doesn’t start on time, or doesn't start smoothly, or in a labor that doesn't unfold in a natural rhythm. Of course there is no specific one rhythm of labor, but generally within a range there is absolutely a patterned unfolding of labor and birth, the dance of mother and baby, and the smoother that unfolding, the easier and calmer your labor can be. These are signs that your birth partner and your birth team can watch for and guide you into the different mind states of labor to help you stay out of your own way should you find yourself trying to control or rationalize yourself through your labor. Your hormonal messengers that are orchestrating the rhythm of your labor and birth will work, and will work better without you being in conscious thought, so they just flow freely and communicate unhindered with your baby.
So on that note of control and consciousness, I want to spend a couple of minutes here on your thyroid gland, which actually plays a very important role in your labor, especially for natural birth. Your thyroid gland is located toward the front of your neck. This gland is extremely important in early pregnancy due to your fetus' demand for thyroid hormone before his/her own thyroid is functioning. But what I really want to discuss about the thyroid gland is the hormone calcitonin, which is one of your body's many mechanisms for maintaining normal blood calcium levels, which we know is important because of the number of methods and backup methods that your body has for keeping steady calcium levels. Alongside the thyroid gland you also have your parathyroid gland, which produces parathyroid hormone to work with calcitonin in balancing blood calcium.
I wanted to bring this up because blood calcium is extremely important for those planning a natural birth because calcium plays so many roles in regard to energy, to how your muscles contract and relax, including the smooth muscles of your uterus, and perhaps most important in regard to blood calcium is its ability to help with the perception of pain from muscle contractions. This type of calcium is not the calcium that most of your calcium supplements contain, and it's not the calcium that's in the common heartburn relief tablets, which so many women are still recommended to take during pregnancy for heartburn, which I personally cannot condone because they disrupt the pH of your whole system, which your kidneys are working so hard during pregnancy to keep at very specific levels, they may damage the digestive system and they can block uptake of other important nutrients. Instead the calcium we are talking about here is ionized calcium, meaning it is active and readily available to be used by the cells of all your tissues for the various functions they serve in your body and during your labor. This is another reason, not the only reason, but a really important reason why a healthy thyroid and parathyroid are so important in pregnancy.
Finally, I want to address your heart, which is not an endocrine gland, but an important contributor to hormone production nonetheless as this is the greatest communicator of the body and is the most connected to emotions on all levels - expressed and submerged. Though the pituitary is referred to as the master gland, it may really be the heart that is the master gland, overseeing the coordination of the whole system, packed with receptors to so much more than we ever expected, with more yet to be discovered. Your heart is connected to everything else happening in your body all the time, all the fluctuations of hormones, generating a huge electromagnetic field that connects our inner and outer world, housing a deep innate wisdom and guiding us with it's ever present beating rhythms. The heart truly is the master gland, and when it is harmonized, and our hormones are pulsing at the right rhythm, we freely express harmonious emotions. When it is out of harmony, and our hormones fall out of sync, our emotions don't express to match the situation, we might shut down or over express, when we want to feel joy, we feel flat, when we want to respond with compassion and understanding we instead express with anger.
So what do you do if you are feeling out of sync, if you are feeling too much or little emotion, if you feel your hormones are out of rhythm? Stop, observe, reharmonize with nature and the cycles of nature, tap into your glands and allow your heart and each gland to communicate. These are the foundational steps to creating a healthy hormonal network and helping your emotions, your physical body and your pregnancy and baby. In the Natural Birth Compass Online Childbirth Education Program, we cover exercises, nutrients and more to help you connect your heart and hormones, to help keep your internal cycles harmonized with external cycles all to help ensure your hormones are flowing smoothly at the right times and your cells and tissues are receptive of the messages they need to receive for the smoothest and calmest birth possible. If you would like to learn more or join our little program, you can find us at NaturalBirthCompass.com/course. Should you feel called to work with me there, I look forward to meeting you soon!
Keep your heart open and your hormones flowing, and until next time I am wishing you a wonderful journey to birth!
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