The biochemistry of peace and love

Lucy Pearce reviews The Oxytocin Factor by Kerstin Uvnäs Moberg. Dr Moberg will be speaking at the Light on Parenting Conference in London in May

What if the key to creating a harmonious world were hidden in our hormones? What if peace and love were chemically coded into our bodies?

According to Kerstin Uvnäs Moberg they are – in the form of the “love hormone”, oxytocin. Oxytocin, which takes its name from the Greek words meaning ‘quick’ and ‘childbirth’, was discovered exactly a century ago. However, until very recently only its mechanical role in birth and breastfeeding were understood.

 

Early on in her book The Oxytocin Factor: Tapping the Hormone of Calm, Love and Healing, Moberg tells us why this is: “The neglect of this system [oxytocin] tells us much about the values that underlie scientific research. The calm and connection system is certainly as important for survival as the system for defense and exertion, and it is equally as complex. Nevertheless, the stress system is explored much more frequently.”

 

The reason that we know so little, comparatively speaking, about this hormone, which is essential for natural birth, breastfeeding, bonding, sexual love, is that our culture values these so little. It is more interested in adrenaline rushes, and the primal fight-or-flight, dog-eat-dog approach to life, than in the values (and therefore the biochemistry) of peace and love.

Moberg’s transition to motherhood created a “systematic change in my behavior and way of thinking” – an experience I am sure many parents reading this can attest to. “In pregnancy, nursing, and close contact with my children, I experienced a state diametrically opposed to the stress I was familiar with in connection with life’s other challenges. I was aware that the psycho-physiological conditions associated with pregnancy and nursing fostered something entirely different from challenge, competition, and performance. Inspired more than two decades ago to explore this life experience scientifically, I learned that there is a key biological marker – oxytocin – on the trail to a physiological explanation of this state of calm and connection.”

Before I read this book it had never really occurred to me that motherhood had wrought in me a permanent biochemical reconfiguration: that the prolonged exposure to peak oxytocin levels through pregnancy, natural birth, breastfeeding and attachment parenting had chemically rewired me – and my children!

In Moberg’s view, and that of Michel Odent in his two most recent books, the impact of our modern culture being driven by adrenaline from birth onwards, rather than by oxytocin as it has been for most of human history, has profound implications. However, these are completely reversible once we understand, and learn to value, the oxytocin system. What previously was natural, and taken for granted, now needs to be chosen and engaged with. We are a culture that currently runs on adrenaline, which – like sugar and oil, our other fuels – is an unsustainable power source. It gives an initial high, but no long-term wellbeing, and it ultimately leads to burnout.

“Instead of tapping the internal ‘power drink,’ our bodies offer a ready-made healing nectar. Under its influence, we see the world and our fellow humans in a positive light; we grow, we heal.”

Beautifully written, and completely accessible for a lay audience, The Oxytocin Factor focuses on the science behind cultivating peace and love in our and our children’s lives, providing us with the scientific understanding to make informed choices for our physical wellbeing, in tune with our own biological, hormonal systems.

Parts one to three explain what oxytocin is, describing it as “the body’s own system for calm and connection”, and how it functions in the brain and nervous system, including its key role in birth and breastfeeding. Part four focuses on its role in touch, sexuality and relationships, and part five on ways we seek calmness, which move far beyond the sphere of birth into all aspects of life, including why we smoke and drink and the role of meditation and other ways humans learn to induce their bodies to produce oxytocin for that feel-good rush.

The book provides a steady stream of aha moments, as things that you may have experienced physically or emotionally but had no rational explanation for become clear to you. It seems extraordinary that we are not taught about oxytocin in school, that our doctors do not share it with us if we present with depression, and that no mention is made of it in standard antenatal visits.

For me oxytocin has become the missing link, the nameless common denominator in pretty much all that matters to me. For us to be natural parents, creating deep bonds with our children and partners, committed to natural birth and breastfeeding, we need to understand the role of oxytocin and cultivate its production in our life choices. I cannot recommend this book highly enough to be your guide along the biological path to peace and love.

Lucy Pearce is contributing editor of JUNO.

 

Kerstin Uvnäs Moberg is a Swedish professor with over 400 scientific papers to her name and is an acknowledged world expert on oxytocin. She will be speaking alongside Michel Odent, Naomi Aldort, Naomi Stadlen, Margot Sunderland and many other luminaries at the Light on Parenting conference, which takes place in London on 5 and 6 May 2012. Suzanne Arms will be chairing the discussion panel at the conference on Sunday. For more details visit www.lightonparenting.com.

The Oxytocin Factor: Tapping the Hormone of Calm, Love and Healing by Kerstin Uvnäs Moberg with foreword by Michel Odent, Pinter & Martin