Saturday, July 5, 2014

Cortisol and Labor: What you need to know

I have several friends that are pregnant with due dates quickly approaching.  This post is for them, and many other women who have a baby on the way.  Whether you plan a natural birth, an induction, or an epidural, this information applies to you.  As you will all feel the pain pressure of contractions.  Throughout your pregnancy you probably researched circumcision, pediatricians, labor positions, or different birthing techniques.  However, I imagine one thing that never crossed your mind was Cortisol.

Cortisol is an important hormone in the body, secreted by the adrenal glands, and involved in many functions. It helps keep proper glucose metabolism, regulation of blood pressure, insulin release, immune function, and inflammatory response, to name a few. Cortisol levels are raised by stress, and high levels are secreted during the body’s flight or fight response to stress. Raised levels can cause suppressed thyroid function, blood sugar imbalances, decreased bone density, decrease in muscle tissue, high blood pressure, low immunity, inflammatory response, lack of ability to heal, and other problems that can contribute to health complications, short term, or possibly long term. Due to these reasons, a high cortisol level is one of the things that should be avoided during labor.

Humans, and other mammals, often experience fight or flight when faced with a stressful situation.  Either run from it or fight it.  During labor and childbirth is another one of those situations.  Cortisol, in addition to many other hormones, is released by the adrenal glands.  It triggers your body to fight or run.  The negative of this is that it can send a rush of blood to your legs, preparing you to run.  During pregnancy your body releases inhibitors that block most of the stress hormones; as we all know planning for a new baby may be stressful.  The body blocks the stress hormones to keep the mom and baby healthy.  However, in the last trimester the amount of inhibitors decrease and the body is affected by the level of cortisol.  During labor the cortisol levels may increase.  This is not want you want.  It is taking blood away from the uterus in addition to preparing your leg muscles rather than focusing on uterine contractions.

The key here is to focus on something else, relax your body one muscle at a time, listen to soothing music, and most importantly breathe. Some women focus on something simple like a nail in the wall.  When I was in labor with my son I focused on his clothes.  Thinking about holding him and bringing him home in that cute little outfit.  With the labor of my daughter I focused on my son.  How great of a big brother he would be.  How I had to be strong for him and this new baby.  Imagining holding her and having my family complete.

A woman that has done her research on procedures during labor and birth is able to make more informed decisions.  She is able to understand and prepare herself for what is about to happen.  She is able to make choices on how she wants her baby to enter the world.  Some women may choose to give birth at home because it is an environment they know.  They are able to have more control over the birth of their babies.  They can play music or relax in a tub or pool.  At a hospital there are unfamiliar faces, bright lights, medical interventions, the fear of the unknown.

With my first birth I had some knowledge.  I met some of the nurses, I attended a birthing class and a lactation class.  I thought I was prepared.   I went in to the hospital thinking I knew exactly what to expect and what would happen.  However, when things changed, I did not know what to do.  So, I just did whatever the nurse told me to.  "Your blood pressure is rising and causing your baby stress. ... You need an epidural or we may have to perform an emergency cesarean."  I will never forget this conversation.  I became scared.  I thought my baby was in immediate danger.  I of course chose the epidural.  Not long after my son was born.  Why?  Because I finally relaxed.  I let my body do what it was supposed to, give birth.

With Charlotte I had contractions for a couple days.  I knew what to expect.  I was mentally prepared for the journey.  I remembered to breathe.  I did not stress.  I knew how to relax myself. And when I forgot, my husband was there to remind me to breathe and relax. He reminded me to think about holding my sweet girl in my arms.

Birth can be painful, yes.  However, it can also be the most amazing experience in your life.  It does not have to be painful if you do not let it.  One step in helping your body is to relax and reduce your cortisol levels.  Reduce the stress.  Build a better relationship with your midwife, doctor, maternity nurses.  Do your research.  Know what to expect, and understand that what you expect may differ from what actually happens.  Create a birth plan that will create a more relaxed environment for you and your baby.  Hire a doula.  What you may have forgot, did not research, or need support, she will be there for you.  Give your body and baby the best chance, from the beginning.


  1. That's interesting!
    I knew that relaxing helps with labor but I didn't know why It did.

    With my first I had back was horribly painful. I was in labor for 17 hours and was up on my feet the whole time.

    I didnt know I was in labor with my second pregnancy. But during labor and the contractions it did help when I tried to take my mind off of EVERYTHING...pre term labor, baby would be 1lb 6 oz., c-section...,.It was extremely hard to relax but when I did the labor itself felt 10x less painful.

  2. The whole cortisol level thing is interesting ! I didn't know that! Being pregnant, everyone tells you how much labor is going to hurt and to get the epidural because I won't be able to handle it, and so on and so on. It's refreshing to read a blog post like this because it does remind you that it doesn't have to be as crazy as they make it seem on television. Focus, focus, focus. I will remember that! Thanks!