A little less than two weeks ago, we had a wonderful lactation consultant training day in Utrecht with a world-famous speaker on the topic of oxytocin, namely the Swedish professor Kerstin Uvnäs Moberg. Straight after her lecture, I had the privilege of sitting down with Kerstin for an interview for the ACE Aware NL-podcast, ‘Raising Resilience’. What an honour!
The editing is done, so the podcast is online for everyone to hear Kerstin speak. In this blog, I would like to share a few of the themes discussed.
Oxytocin is an amazing hormone and Kerstin has spent a lifetime studying it, writing about it, and most of all doing research on it. When she started examining its effects, she was intrigued and felt that there was more to it than just its well-known role in the field of birth and breastfeeding. She started talking about the hormone’s characteristics as an aside at first, when she gave lectures on other topics, but slowly but surely general interest increased and she was drawn to the subject, also by curious students who wanted to become knowledgeable on the subject. Sensing there was much more to oxytocin than met the eye and by truly dedicating herself to this totally new field, she evolved into a global expert.
Until those early days of oxytocin research, there had been an lot of attention on the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, dominant in the active or sympathetic part of the stress regulation system, the more ‘male’ side, one might say. When Kerstin started focusing on the relaxation half of the stress system, the parasympathetic or the more ‘female’ side, this was a whole new development. Beautiful mechanisms showed up: calm and connect, rest and digest, tend and befriend – all functions that historically are seen more as dominant in female realms of life, as they are very important in birth, breastfeeding, caretaking, and wound and trauma healing.
It took a while before oxytocin was seen as a serious topic to study. The newness of it caused some raised eyebrows here and there: ‘Is this serious? Is this real? Can we measure it? What is the added value of knowing more about this?’ Kerstin persisted and proved its huge relevance. She feels that although it is good that new topics in science are rigorously studied before claims are made, ideally the academic mind is open to innovations and willing to contemplate new ideas, guided by real curiosity. These days, oxytocin is a well-known substance, to the point even where its meaning is sometimes a bit superficially reduced to ‘the cuddle hormone’. Thus, the much more profound and diffuse effects on well-being, healing, and anxiety reduction and all the consequences those effects have on society are forgotten.
It was amazing to listen to Kerstin and notice how she aptly referred to aspects of oxytocin (which is not only a hormone but also a neurotransmitter) that might have revolutionary effects if taken much more seriously. For example, she mentioned the importance of being aware of certain healthcare routines that are done on a daily basis and are considered so normal and obvious that they are sometimes not even studied for their long-term effects, even though a deeper insight might make us all more conscious of their impact. After all, small effects in large numbers and high frequency do add up to making a huge clinical difference! There are many social factors that can play a role in this dearth of research: how much status do certain topics and thus studies have, how long does the follow-up need to be to say something meaningful about the intervention, what financial investment and professional prestige is connected to the decision to either setting up or pushing aside this kind of research?
Kerstin also considers it desirable that young students gain access to old scientific material in order to create an integrative view on the topics they study. Specialties in healthcare can be wonderful, but they may have the risk of fragmenting the human body into a collection of organs instead of seeing the body as a coherent whole that mirrors the result of a delicate (im)balance between complicated systems working together, from gut to brain and vice versa, with subtle rhythms and patterns deserving a sophisticated, respectful approach when studied.
It was music to my ears to hear such an eminent lady, who has dedicated a lifetime to this one topic, speak in such a holistic way about a hormone that is so old, so ‘well-preserved and archaic’, as she called it herself. Nevertheless, it was not always easy for Kerstin to bring that holistic effect of oxytocin to the forefront, because most journals that publish scientific articles want them to be specific and detailed, not broad and general, which is regularly considered superficial.
I was also deeply touched by Kerstin’s remark that the attunement of the mother to the baby’s needs, once she is flooded by oxytocin, may be the first time in her life where she feels that giving priority to that little human instead of herself is a logical thing to do, purely because of the baby’s total dependence on the mother for satisfying the hunger and the need for contact. This also implies that those around the birth mother need to be aware of the mother’s vulnerability and of the impact of saying, advising, or even demanding things that overrule the mother’s evolutionary intuition, stimulated by her high oxytocin levels.
All in all, it was a joy to listen to Kerstin and speak with her and a delight to hear, in reply to my questions about what she looks forward to, that she wants to write more and keep doing more research, as there is still so much about oxytocin that is worthy of a yet more thorough understanding. May oxytocin be a large part of what keeps Kerstin healthy, so that for years to come, we can all benefit from her bright mind and warm heart!