Balancing The Nervous System To Handle Daily Stress: An Interview With Jeanne Ohm, D.C.
In April of this year, birth practitioners and advocates from all over the world gathered online for a weeklong event called the Birth Healing Summit, created and hosted by Lynn Shulte, P.T. Among the notable appearances and presentations was a spotlight interview with Jeanne Ohm, D.C., editor of Pathways to Family Wellness and executive coordinator of the International Chiropractic Pediatric Association. The conversation was insightful and wide-ranging; we felt it deserved a wider audience, so we’re bringing it to you below.
Lynn: Welcome to the Birth Healing Summit. We’re talking with Jeanne Ohm, D.C., about balancing the nervous system so moms can handle daily stressors in life. So, Jeanne, how do we do that as moms?
Jeanne: Well, I’ll begin by saying that I’ve been involved in chiropractic for 40 years, and chiropractic is what led me into natural birthing. I think it’s important for people to understand what chiropractic is, because chiropractic is one way we can balance the nervous system.
A lot of people think, “Oh, you have a bad back. Go to the chiropractor for treatment.” Actually, my story with chiropractic began in that way, after I had fractured my spine hang-gliding. I initially went through orthopedic procedures and drugs, and after a year I was still hurting. My orthopedic doctor told me, “Oh, honey, you’re gonna have a bad back for the rest of your life.”
Not knowing what to do, I went to a chiropractor who explained to me, “Chiropractic is not about the ‘bad back.'” I remember thinking, “Then what am I doing here?” He said, “We work with the nervous system. As I make adjustments on your spine, that takes pressure off your nervous system and allows you to function better on many levels— physiologically, psychologically, socially, and physically.” It’s unfortunate that people don’t really understand that part of chiropractic. It’s why people might ask, “Why would you bring your baby to a chiropractor; do they have a bad back?” They don’t realize we’re working to enhance the nervous system—the most important system in the body, which runs and controls everything else. When I began to receive chiropractic care as a teenager, my lifelong asthma went away. My allergies and migraine headaches left. Even my menstrual cycle became regular. Then I started to understand what chiropractic was really about. It’s not the treatment of any of those conditions, it’s just the restoration of normal body function, which may manifest in amazing ways and differently for every person.
At the same time as we restore normal function, chiropractic also strengthens the autonomic nervous system’s ability to process future stress. That’s huge for pregnancy, birth, and early bonding. It helps us move out of perpetual fight-or-flight activity that has become an unavoidable part of modern living.
Lynn: Absolutely! So you said chiropractic helped you discover natural birthing for yourself. Can you talk about chiropractic as it relates to a more physiological birth?
Jeanne: One aspect of birth that’s particularly relevant is the topic of dystocia, or the cause for birth to slow down and stop progressing. Williams Obstetrics defines dystocia as being related to three aspects of birth: power, passage, and passenger.
Power is how the uterus is functioning and the ability of the cervix to dilate. It’s an intelligent physiological process that’s coordinated through the activity of the nervous system. If a pregnant mom’s spine is out of alignment, or if she is experiencing undue stress and perceived danger in her environment, her nervous system will shift out of its ideal physiological state for giving birth.
A subluxation, or misalignment of the spine, can cause the body to signal a fight-or-flight response, just as external stressors in the birth environment can and often do. Going back to the importance of the autonomic nervous system, if the mother is in this state of fight-or-flight during labor, the cervix won’t dilate effectively, and the uterus’s function will begin to shut down.
Usually, if the birth is at the hospital, the hospital staff will say early on, “Well, you’re not progressing here and we have do something to get things moving.” In reality, what’s most needed is to calm the environment, wait for the nervous system to catch back up, and allow the mother to regain autonomic balance. It would be great if there was a chiropractor at every birth, to assure that autonomic balance was achieved for every birthing mother.
So, that’s the power of chiropractic in birth, relating back to the importance of the power of the uterus and the ability of the cervix to dilate.
Passage, the second component related to dystocia, is all about the pelvis. Now, if the pelvis is out of alignment, perhaps from early accidents in life or due to modern habits like prolonged sitting and poor posture—something we are all familiar with—then it’s going to be harder for the mother and baby to successfully birth. Williams Obstetrics states: “A misaligned pelvis makes birth difficult.” Chiropractors agree, absolutely. And that’s what we do as chiropractors—we adjust the pelvis and bring it back into balance. This also allows the baby, the passenger, to assume an ideal position with respect to the birth process.
Williams Obstetrics says, “The passenger can affect or contribute to dystocia or labor slowing down.” Well, now we know why. When the pelvis is out of alignment, different ligaments and muscles connected to the pelvis start pulling the uterus in a certain way, putting tension on the uterine environment and inhibiting the baby from assuming an ideal position for birth. When we align the pelvis, we actually improve the baby’s ability to get into his or her preferred position for birth, which is almost always headdown, occiput anterior. It’s amazing to me how chiropractic is not yet utilized for every pregnancy, not only to assure a safer, easier birth, but to help show mothers the magnificent intelligence present within the body during birth. In the months before birth, when the baby is trying to find an ideal position, we can see the value of chiropractic care for both mom and baby really shine through.
Addressing the power, passage, and passenger of birth with chiropractic means getting the nervous system working again so that ideal physiological function is present, getting the spine aligned so no internal stressors interfere with that function, and aligning the pelvis so that the optimal passage exists for the baby to align with and traverse through during birth. All this amounts to excellent preparation for natural birth.
Lynn: You mention a lot about the social vagus in your work. Can you tell us more about that and how it relates to those early moments of life after birth?
Jeanne: So most people are familiar with the two branches of the autonomic nervous system: the parasympathetic and the sympathetic branches. Well, a researcher named Stephen Porges has hypothesized a third branch, called the vagal branch. It’s dedicated to our social interactions, and is therefore often called the “social vagus.” The idea used to be that the sympathetic nervous system handled life’s stressors while the parasympathetic system handled life’s regenerative functions. However, the key new finding from social vagus research shows that all three systems can and will respond to stress in their own unique way, but that the body prefers to use the newest evolutionary system—the social vagus— to process and adapt to most of life’s stressors. Only if the social vagus fails to satisfy our biological needs will the body resort to the older, less-preferred branches of the nervous system, the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches, respectively. In other words, the nervous system prefers to work hierarchically, from its newest to its oldest systems, for dealing with stress and satisfying needs.
A great example is in healthy infants, who will first attempt using the social vagus branch of their nervous system to get their biological needs met, by using subtle communications and vocalizations—expressions that are controlled by the vagus nerve. If this method fails them, which it often may, infants will resort to crying and screaming, indicative of the sympathetic branch of the nervous system being active. Usually, this sympathetic approach will solve the problem. However, when it doesn’t, and their needs are still not met for a sufficiently long period of time, then the infant will resort to what’s called “parasympathetic shutdown,” which is the body’s oldest stress-management system. It goes back to the reptilian “freeze” response. Often, parents and professionals will interpret this latter systemic response as a positive form of “self-soothing.” In reality, it’s a sub-optimal nervous system state of being, and a last resort for dealing with unresolvable stress.
All this relates directly to birth and those early moments of life, because the methods babies adopt for dealing with stress become conditioned as the preferred method moving forward. Looking at the world today, it’s apparent that the social vagus method of stress management, including calm communication and social interaction, is in short supply.
John Chitty, Ph.D., has looked extensively at the issue of the hierarchical nervous system and the vagus nerve as it relates to birth. At birth we often cut the cord right away. We sever the connection and even separate the baby from his mother to wash the vernix off, inject him with foreign elements, circumcise him or perform other interventions— all of which are profoundly intense and far beyond the social vagus’s ability to adapt. The result is that the baby’s nervous system gets primed, right from day one, to employ the sympathetic fight-or-flight or the parasympathetic shutdown responses to life and its stressors. The ideal response, and the biologically appropriate one, is provided by the activation of the vagus nerve, opening up the social responses and cues that come naturally whenever we allow the mother and baby to bond and look at each other in the eyes in peace and quiet. It’s what midwives have been encouraging mothers and babies to do for as long as they’ve been around the birth setting.
Think about it: All throughout pregnancy, the baby has been hearing the mother’s voice, the rhythm of her heartbeat. He’s tasted and smelled her presence in the womb, has felt her movements, and experienced the world through mom’s experience. Connecting to the mother after birth is so important to offer a smooth, even pleasurable transition into the world, and this allows the baby to open up and activate the social vagus portion of the nervous system, bringing it to its fullest expression. All this can have a tremendous influence for the rest of his or her life. To have that baby right there, physically connected, so that mom can look into that baby’s eyes, and the baby can look back and smell and feel and taste and know that she’s close to home…that’s what opens up this higher level in the nervous system. It allows us to connect with our environment better, with other people, and communicate in an embodied, nonverbal way. This is higher social functioning.
With typical birthing in the modern world, we’ve been separating babies from their mothers and robbing them both of this sacred connection— in effect, shutting down their higher nervous systems and encouraging them to employ the more primitive aspects. Recovering from this and helping families come back into higher social functioning becomes a primary concern. Chiropractors know the importance of this and can offer practical solutions. And so we can see the importance of chiropractic care, not only for pregnancy and birth, but for the early years of life to assure that we establish healthy nervous system function and wake the child up to the higher functioning that’s innate to our species. Having a chiropractor at birth, especially if the birth is traumatic, can do so much for the baby’s nervous system and to wake up the social vagus whenever it gets violated or circumvented by extreme birth conditions. This is so vital for future bonding and things like nursing, and for thriving. It’s amazing to see positive changes happen in practice, it’s really kinda cool to witness it and be a part of it.
Lynn: That’s incredible! And just to mention, also, the fact that walking into a hospital to have a birth can lead to trauma because hospitals see birth, intrinsically, as a medical event, through their pathogenic model. Birth is deemed a medical event from which we must be “saved.”
Jeanne: Right, pathogenesis is fear-based. It assumes something is wrong. Birth has no place in that pathogenic model. I believe we are in a cultural transition away from pathogenesis, toward a new model called salutogenesis, where we recognize the source, or foundation, of health as something to be worked with in its own right. It’s really about respecting and honoring normal physiological function that’s been around for millions of years. The greatest evidence-based science that exists is normal physiology. This understanding really goes beyond birth and into our life as a whole, and our ability to be effective mothers and guardians of our inherent power as a species.
This article was adapted from the Birth Healing Summit interview with Jeanne Ohm, D.C., and Lynn Schulte, P.T. Discover more at Instituteforbirthhealing.com.