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April 27, 2004

More Subhanallah Lessons: Ostrich Eggs and Oxytocin

1. Someone mentioned to me yesterday a cool thing about ostrich eggs. Apparently you need a saw to break them open because the shell is so tough. This must certainly come in handy for ostriches, who lay their eggs while standing up, so the egg must “fall” a greater distance as compared to a chicken egg. The extra tough shell protects the egg for this momentary journey.

2. Oxytocin: this is a hormone released from the posterior pituitary that does a bunch of things, including help the birthing/nursing processes.  What’s even cooler is the new research being done on this hormone and what all it does.

a. After a mother gives birth, her body begins to secrete higher levels of oxytocin than before. This oxytocin burst stimulates a reinforcement in the attachment bond of the mother for her newborn child.

b. The child’s earliest attachment comes from its “smell” of the mother. Studies in rats show that newborns whose mothers are given oxytocin antagonists are less attached to their mothers. Thus, oxytocin acts on both the mother and infact to reinforce the attachment bond.

c. Interestingly enough, females have more oxytocin than males, a possible explanation for why mothers and children are such deeply attached as compared to fathers and children. Oxytocin is like biological rahmah (mercy).

d. Oxytocin also causes lactation in women, which leads to lower levels of stress hormones, lower blood pressure, lower heart rate, etc. It’s like rahmah that feeds back on the mother to “help” her out in the after-birth process.

e. Finally, the coolest thing that blew me away: as mentioned before, oxytocin is responsible for inducing lactation in women. Now we’ve all heard of the benefits of breast-feeding and thus it comes as no surprise that there are Qur’anic verses and Hadith that encourage this practice. Most of the reasoning (both scientific and religious) speaks of the innumerable benefits to the child. I’ve talked about the scientific benefits in a previous post on Blurty:

5. finally, after taking histology for a whole semester and looking at slides of pointless stuff… i’ve found only one thing that’s amazing enough to share. when a child is born and the mother begins to lactate, the composition of the milk that is produced is of two types. the first type, produced immediately after the child is born, is full of proteins and antibodies (these will give the newborn resistance to all kinds of junk); this kind of milk is only produced for about a week after birth, allowing the child to receive the vital antibodies that will help keep him/her alive during that first week. then, after about the first week, the milk secreted amazingly changes to a composition of proteins, lipids, etc (ie, normal maternal milk). so i think that’s really amazing, especially given the fact that in Islam, the child should be breast-fed by the mother… certainly for the above reason and many others.

As for the religious benefits of it, it’s is believed that the mother passes on her characteristics (particularly forebearance and mercy) through her milk to the child. Interestingly enough, when you look at the life of the Prophet, it comes as no coincidence that the name of his wet-nurse was Halimah. One of the things that the scholars have said is that there is meaning even in the names of the people who were around the Prophet; in this case, Halimah literally means “one full of forebearance”. It’s also a name that Allah uses to describe Himself (2:225 among other verses). So if we stop to look at Halimah’s situation before she received the Prophet: a poor woman who did not even have enough milk for her son, riding on a donkey that was beyond emaciated and could barely walk. Yet, her resilience and forebearance despite these trials is amazing; these same attributes would be passed on to the Messenger of Allah when he too would have to deal with unimaginable tribulations later in his life.

Thus, usually when we speak of nursing, it’s often because of the benefits for the child. However, recent research has shown that there’s benefits for the mother as well. For example, mothers who breast-fed subsequently spend more time and talk to their babies more than mothers who don’t. These mothers also are have a lowered risk of depression and other mental disorders due to these increased levels of oxytocin (oxytocin not only stimulates lactation, but the infant’s feeding will also reinforce oxytocin levels). Finally, the coolest thing, is that oxytocin not only can prevent breast cancer, but can also kill developing breast cancer cells while sparing healthy cells.

I guess modern medicine and scientific research are only reinforcing what Muslims were already taught 1400 years ago. Too bad we’re not the ones doing this research and then relating this back to our beautiful tradition. 


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