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How pregnancy hormones work
 
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Hormones doing overtime during pregnancy

Pregnancy converts your body into a hormone beehive with special hormones on the move and a swathe of regular hormones doing overtime. These hormones help your baby grow and prepare you for childbirth, breast-feeding and beyond. Learn more...

Relaxin: your ligament relaxing hormone

Overtime pregnancy hormones
© Thinkstock

Throughout the 9 months of pregnancy, a woman will need very supple and elastic body tissues. During childbirth, bone and muscle structures will need to distend as much as possible in order to allow the baby to pass through.

With this in mind, the body secretes a hormone called relaxin to relax joints and ligaments in the entire body. To give you an example, the pubic region lengthens and sides increase by almost 4cm.

This is why specialists advise pregnant women to do gentle exercise and avoid all abrupt movements so as not to damage joints and ligaments during this more vulnerable time.

Prolactin: your breast milk producing hormone

Prolactin is another hormone already present in a woman’s body at low levels and which plays a very important role.

Prolactin prepares the body for producing mammals' number one food: milk. Biological mechanisms prevent milk production before the placenta is removed or stops working. During pregnancy, oestrogen hormones prevent milk production. The body gives the signal to start milk production right after childbirth. Everything is perfectly synchronised! 

Prolactin levels are stimulated to do the necessary and once triggered, milk is produced by sucking or stimulating the nipple. So how does this work?

Sucking is interpreted by the skin’s nerve receptors and transmitted to the brain to inform the hypothalamus. This part of the brain continues to stimulate prolactin production while inhibiting hCG production. If the nipple continues to be stimulated and the milk is used, breastfeeding can go on for a long period of time, even years.

High prolactin levels are also responsible for the lack of menstruation during breastfeeding which many women experience. 

Oxytocin: more breast milk hormone help

Milk production is also aided by another hormonal substance: oxytocin. This hormone is released by the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland as a reaction to nipple stimulation and causes muscle contractions.

This reflex can also help us to understand why a baby’s sucking or handling breasts after childbirth causes strong uterine contractions. Many women report that these contractions are more painful when they breastfeed.

Adrenaline and noradrenaline: energy giving hormones

Adrenaline and noradrenaline control human reactions to dangerous situations. They increase heartbeat, breathing, intestinal functions and uterine activity. They also generate anxiety and nervousness.

During childbirth, these adrenal hormones are extremely useful and increase spectacularly so as to give the mother and baby the necessary energy to manage this relatively rigorous process.

Cortisone: health protection hormone

This hormone’s levels increase in significant proportions during pregnancy meaning allergy problems (such as asthma) are better combated during these 9 months.

Cortisone is secreted by the adrenal glands (located above each kidney) and its job is - among other things - to stimulate the conversion of proteins into carbohydrates. Adrenal glands are controlled by the pituitary gland and also produce other hormones such as aldosterone, which helps to regulate blood pressure and also regulates the metabolism of sodium and potassium.

Endorphins: feel-good neuro-hormones

Endorphins are not actual hormones, but rather “neuro-hormones”; chemical substances that behave like neurotransmitters. Noradrenaline, adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin, the different enkephalins, etc. are also part of this group.

Endorphins act like opium and morphine; they relieve pain. They are “feel-good” molecules, the body’s natural tranquilizers. Mother nature is very wise: endorphin levels increase during pregnancy and reach their peak at childbirth.

Endorphins can also be generated by exercise and sport. Physical activity activates endorphin production and creates a pleasant feeling of optimism.

Posted 22.03.2011

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