By James Goodlatte
The childbirth experience can be a stunning blend of love and power for mom and baby, especially if mom is not left with drug side-effects or scars. It is one a unique opportunity for mom and baby to bond in love unhindered by drug effects, separation, uncertainty, bewilderment, guilt, or regret. Mom did it. Baby did it. We did it together.
One way to ensure this possibility is for the laboring mom to reduce the amount of pain she perceives during childbirth. How? Exercise trains the body how to generate three very important classes of hormones for the pregnant mom.
First the adrenal glands learn how to produce catecholamines (epinephrine-adrenaline, norepinephrine-noradrenaline, and dopamine). It’s relatively well-known that exercise causes a surge of catecholamines. Similar to so many studies in exercise physiology, one 2008 study in Sports Medicine highlights the more important point that exercise also increases one’s capacity to produce these catecholamines. The authors write, “…physical training can increase the capacity to secrete adrenaline via an increase of the adrenal gland volume and adrenaline content.” The researchers add, “For some authors, this phenomenon can partly explain the higher physical performance observed in trained compared with untrained subjects.” In the Journal of Perinatal Education, Judith Lothian, PhD, RN, writes, “As the baby moves down the birth canal…catecholamines are released.” Nurse Lothian says that the surge in catecholamines creates an energy boost for the mother and baby. It is nature’s way of helping laboring moms feel extra love, gratitude, pain relief, and more.
Second, exercise improves mom’s pituitary-hypothalamus gland connection to produce another class of hormones called endorphins. Endorphins are nature’s pain relieving opiates. They can be released in response to pain, danger, or other forms of stress. Their job during childbirth is to induce feelings of pleasure and euphoria, and likely play a role in reducing risk of post-partum depression. Exercise physiologist, Greg Landry says “After several months of regular exercise, you develop an increased sensitivity to endorphins.” What this means, says Landry, is that the body learns to receive a “higher high” from the same level of endorphins. He also reports that the endorphins you learn to produce from exercise tend to stay in your blood for a longer period of time, making longer exertion easier because you’re feeling no pain.
Third, exercising moms may teach their hypothalamus-pituitary gland connection how to produce the neurotransmitter, oxytocin. Oxytocin is the chemical for love, orgasm, trust, and pair bonding. Oxytocin floods the woman’s system after natural drug-free and non-surgical birth (stimulated by distention of the cervix and vagina during labor). Research seems limited in this area, as rat studies on the effect of exercise seem most prevalent. A 2005 study posted on PubMed.gov concludes that “training increased OT (oxytocin).” Another study from a 2007 issue of Regulatory, Integrative and comparative Physiology concludes, regular “exercise significantly enhances cardiac OT [oxytocin and other hormonal systems], thus implicating all three hormonal systems in the beneficial effects of exercise training.”
Nature has bestowed the pregnant mom with three wondrous gifts to use in labor: energy boost, pain relief, and the love-bond. Exercise is the pregnant mom’s tool for maximizing that gift. The more she exercises the better her glands become at synthesizing these chemicals. The effects help during pregnancy, and are then most pronounced during a natural labor.
Building Focus, Awareness, and Physical Preparation
Women who exercise during pregnancy also develop a higher degree of control and awareness over their bodies. They are able to adjust their tensions in ways that can reduce the appearance of pain. In exercise, a woman also learns to focus and remain mentally at ease. What feels extreme for an unconditioned mom may seem only like intense burning for a mom who is used to pushing herself in exercise.
Exercise teaches a pregnant mom how to effectively handle stress. To the body, there is little difference between stress of exercise and the stress of labor. Exercise conditions a lactic acid burn that builds strength and endurance. Exercise also increases nutrient and oxygen flow while speedily flushing wastes. Like one who improves their fitness levels over time, an exercising pregnant woman becomes conditioned to handle the burn. Less pain is suffered when the body knows how to handle physical exertion, whether that exertion is exercise or childbirth.
Unfortunately, a mom whose labor is numbed by epidurals or ends in C-section will not experience the euphoria that occurs from a natural chemical rush. She is more often left feeling the pains of labor without the chemical rewards.
Exercise that reduces the pain of childbirth becomes an aide for natural childbirth. Natural birthing expert Ina May Gaskin (who is probably the world’s most famous midwife) summarizes the effects that this has for mom and baby:
“The woman who gives birth without interventions…is more apt to be through with pain when the baby is born. Often, she is euphoric, buoyed on the hormones released after the birth of the baby. Oxytocin, the love hormone, is released with the final stretch of the perineum around the baby’s head and body. Pain, if present seconds earlier, is often erased or pushed into the background.”
James Goodlatte, B.S. Kinesiology, is a NASM certified personal trainer and CHEK holistic health practitioner who has taught functional-corrective exercise for more than a decade. He is co-founder of SecretsofPainlessChildbirth.com, GetFitForBirth.com, NaturalBirthMommies.com, and YourSuperBaby.com. He can be contacted at FitForBirth@gmail.com