Oxytocin — nicknamed by some experts “the tend and befriend hormone” — is one of the most important hormones that humans (and many other mammals) produce, considering it plays a role in social bonding, building relationships, reproduction, childbirth and breastfeeding.
According to the American Psychological Association, oxytocin is released in response to positive social connection and stressful conditions. Levels have been found to be higher when someone is under stress, such as when exposed to social isolation or when in an unhappy relationship.
What does oxytocin do, and where is it produced? It’s produced in the hypothalamus in the brain, often called the “control center,” and most often released by the pituitary gland.
Once the hypothalamus sends signals for oxytocin to be produced, it’s either released into the bloodstream or to other parts of the brain and spinal cord. It binds to oxytocin receptors, influencing how we feel and behave towards others.
We usually think of it as a feminine hormone, but do men produce oxytocin too?
Yes — while it was originally considered a hormone that was only found in women due to its tie to labor and lactation, it’s now known to be present and important in both men and women. For example, it helps with male reproduction, as well as female reproduction, by supporting production of testosterone in the testes and motility of sperm.
Why is oxytocin called “the love drug”? It’s responsible for many aspects of social bonding and sexual pleasure.
Situations that make us feel safe, happy and connected tend to cause the release of several “feel good hormones,” including oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin.
Oxytocin also has similarities to endorphins (opiate chemicals) because we release more in order to soothe ourselves in response to sources of pain and stress.
How does oxytocin make you feel?
Studies show that oxytocin enforces pro-social behaviors, bonding and even fidelity by rewarding those who maintain good relationships with positive, calm feelings of well-being.
Social contact seems to result in bursts of oxytocin, even if it’s anticipated social contact, such as planning for a party, date or get-together.
The hormone also works on on a “positive feedback loop.” It makes us want to socialize, which further increases our production, continuing to make us seek out relationships with others.
While it also works under times of low stress, oxytocin has been shown to be elevated under times of high stress too.
Some recent studies have found that people who report having poor social relationships usually have higher circulating levels of both oxytocin and the stress hormone cortisol than those reporting better relationships.
Externally administering the hormone via supplements seems to help mitigate stress reactions, acting as a type of natural buffer. It can make people who are stressed out seek out support through better social connections.
It also may help protect the nervous system from shutting down in the face of stressful circumstances, including childbirth.
Some animal studies show that treatment with oxytocin causes stressed animals to no longer display signs of depression, anxiety or cardiac stress. By increasing someone’s motivation to find help from others, the hormone can help people find opportunities that lead to more security, joy and love.
Oxytocin strengthens labor contractions during childbirth, along with helping to control bleeding after childbirth. It also facilitates production of prostaglandins, which are chemicals that move labor along.
In prescription/synthetic form, it can be used to induce labor or speed up the process. The most widely used form is the brand name drug Pitocin, which is commonly given to women in the hospital during labor.
One of oxytocin’s functions is to support breastfeeding and nurturing maternal behaviors among both mothers and fathers.
Research links the hormone to a mothers’ ability to care for her infant in multiple ways, one of which is through breastfeeding. When a baby nurses from his/her mother’s breast, nerves in the nipple send a signal to the pituitary gland to produce oxytocin, which then causes tiny muscles around the nipple to squeeze and release milk.
Experts also believe that oxytocin helps new mothers and fathers feel calm even during difficult life transitions, one of which is having and caring for a new baby. Levels have been shown to rise in parents due to affectionate touch and contact with their baby.
Higher oxytocin release is now linked with protection against accelerated signs of aging and better regeneration of aged tissue stem cells, including muscle cells, according to animal studies.
Oxytocin injections may be used in the future to help injuries heal better, improve bone health and possibly prevent obesity. For example, some animal studies have found that oxytocin administration leads to sustained weight reduction by reducing food intake, which is believed to happen because it dampens the brain’s food-related reward circuitry.
Both higher- and lower-than-normal levels of oxytocin can cause health problems among women and men, according to endocrinologists. Here are some examples of how:
Wondering, “How can I increase my oxytocin levels?” Is there a supplement for oxytocin, or foods that can naturally boost production?
Here are ways that you can naturally boost your production in order to promote feelings of well-being and connectedness:
Does food have oxytocin? This hormone is not found in foods, but it plays a role in regulating appetite.
Eating aphrodisiac foods — such as chocolate, coffee, fish, avocado and some herbs — may also improve your mood and desire for connection, leading to higher release.
What happens if you take oxytocin in supplement or spray form? Although more research is still needed to confirm how oxytocin supplements and sprays affect our behaviors and moods, researchers think there’s a possibility that administering this hormone may help people dealing with social and emotional problems.
Conditions that oxytocin may be able to help include autism or Asperger’s disorder, social anxiety, schizophrenia, and depression.
Some early experiments suggest that oxytocin nasal sprays or injections may help people with these conditions better identify emotional content and facilitate social information processing.
Can oxytocin be taken orally? At this time there isn’t an oral supplement of this hormone available.
Because it’s destroyed in the gastrointestinal tract, it’s given by injection or nasal spray instead.
Dosage of oxytocin depends on why it’s being given and someone’s response — therefore it must be individualized. When it’s given to induce labor, IV infusion is used along with frequent monitoring.
Infusion doses starting at 0.5 to 1 milliunits/minute, in some cases increasing up to 6 milliunits/minute, are typically given to women during labor.
Are there any oxytocin supplement side effects to be aware of?
Overall it isn’t entirely known how effective these supplements may be when used long term. Researchers are still working to determine how this hormone impacts people differently depending on factors like genetics and underlying psychiatric disorders.
There’s some evidence that administering supplements to increase oxytocin levels may wind up having side effects like increased prejudice, envy and dishonesty among some users, although it seems to depend on the individual.
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