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Pitocin has been described as a very useful drug that improved obstetrics and gave us options to induce labor and help women in ways we weren’t able to before. Pitocin has also been described as a seductive drug that changed obstetrics, increasing risks to mothers and babies in ways that are often not even taken into consideration.
Both of these descriptions are accurate. How can that be? There are risks and benefits associated with the decision to induce, which will not be covered in this article. It’s a decision not to be taken lightly, but for now, let’s talk about what goes on after that decision is made.
Pitocin is a drug used to induce or augment labors. It is generally administered by IV, although when used immediately postpartum, it’s often an intramuscular injection. It was created in 1953 and has only been approved for the medical induction and stimulation of labor. When Pitocin is used for the elective induction or stimulation of labor, it constitutes off-label usage of the drug. Mothering magazine reports, “A survey by Robbie Davis- Floyd, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Texas, found that 81 percent of women in U.S. hospitals receive Pitocin either to induce or augment their labors.”
It has been said that only 3 percent of deliveries medically require it.
Pitocin has been nicknamed “Pit,” and I’ve even heard “Vitamin P.” I’ve heard many obstetrics professionals say that Pitocin is just oxytocin, and has the exact same effect on your body. While the oxytocin in Pitocin is chemically designed to mimic the oxytocin your body produces, it has far from the same effect on your body.
How Pitocin Is Different
While the oxytocin your body produces is chemically similar to the oxytocin contained in Pitocin, the way your body recognizes and responds to the two is very different. The difference has to do with the blood-brain barrier. Simply put, the vast majority of substances that enter our bloodstream cannot pass into the cerebrospinal fluid. The body protects the brain from all but a select few substances going from the blood into the brain (such as oxygen and glucose).
Oxytocin is produced by the brain and has a direct effect on brain function. But when Pitocin is introduced into the bloodstream, it does not affect the brain.
While Wikipedia is not always a reliable source of information, the WikiDoc page on oxytocin (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxytocin) has enough reputable sources cited that I am very confident of its accuracy. Here’s what is has to say on the difference between natural oxytocin and Pitocin.
“Oxytocin secreted from the pituitary gland cannot re-enter the brain because of the blood-brain barrier. Instead, the behavioral effects of oxytocin are thought to reflect release from centrally projecting oxytocin neurons, different from those that project to the pituitary gland, or which are collaterals from them. Oxytocin receptors are expressed by neurons in many parts of the brain and spinal cord, including the amygdala, ventromedial hypothalamus, septum, nucleus accumbens and brainstem.”
The article goes on to list these effects of natural oxytocin:
Sexual arousal. Oxytocin injected into the cerebrospinal fluid causes spontaneous erections in rats, reflecting actions in the hypothalamus and spinal cord. Centrally administrated oxytocin receptor antagonists can prevent non-contact erections, which is a measure of sexual arousal. Studies using oxytocin antagonists in female rats provide data that oxytocin increases lordosis, indicating an increase in sexual receptivity.
Bonding. In the prairie vole, oxytocin released into the brain of the female during sexual activity is important for forming a monogamous pair bond with her sexual partner. Vasopressin appears to have a similar effect in males. Oxytocin has a role in social behaviors in many species, and so it seems likely that it has similar roles in humans.
Maternal behavior. Rat females given oxytocin antagonists after giving birth do not exhibit typical maternal behavior. By contrast, virgin female sheep show maternal behavior towards foreign lambs upon cerebrospinal fluid infusion of oxytocin, which they would not do otherwise. Oxytocin is involved in the initiation of maternal behavior not its maintenance, for example, it is higher in mothers after they interact with unfamiliar children rather than their own.
According to some studies in animals, oxytocin inhibits the development of tolerance to various addictive drugs (opiates, cocaine, alcohol) and reduces withdrawal symptoms.
Preparing fetal neurons for delivery. Crossing the placenta, maternal oxytocin reaches the fetal brain and induces a switch in the action of neurotransmitter GABA from excitatory to inhibitory on fetal cortical neurons. This silences the fetal brain for the period of delivery and reduces its vulnerability to hypoxic damage.
MDMA (ecstasy) may increase feelings of love, empathy and connection to others by stimulating oxytocin activity via activation of serotonin 5-HT1A receptors, if initial studies in animals apply to humans. The anxiolytic Buspar (buspirone) also appears to produce some or all of its effect via 5-HT1A receptor-induced oxytocin stimulation.
In other words, natural oxytocin is produced by the brain and affects the brain before becoming systemic. Pitocin is never seen by the brain, and therefore the brain doesn’t release the complex cocktail of labor/birth hormones that it does during a naturally occurring labor. It has recently been suggested that due to the blood-brain barrier and the hormonal dance that happens during labor—and due to the recent discoveries of the affect of oxytocin in autistic children—Pitocin may be a contributing factor to the epidemic autistic rates we are seeing lately.
Another notable difference between Pitocin and our natural oxytocin is the rate in which it’s administered. In the body, during a normal natural labor, oxytocin is released in spurts, ebbing and flowing, causing contractions, then easing off. Pitocin is administered via a steady infusion with a pump. Its levels in the blood remain constant—that is, until the dosage is turned up (generally every 15–30 minutes).