Love is a Drug (i.e., Oxytocin)

Okay, well, it’s not actually a “drug,” per se, as much as it is a hormone, but as hormones go, it’s a pretty great one.

Ever notice how incredibly great it feels to get your back scratched in just the right way? Of course you have–but you’re not alone. Lots of animals love the feeling they get when they’re scratched (from bonobos to owls), and that’s because we’re all releasing oxytocin. Oxytocin is known for “forging bonds” and new research indicates that oxytocin plays a crucial role not just in happy back and head rubs, and strengthened  social relations, but in helping mitigate psychological and physiological problems as well.

oxytocin chemical structure

Oxytocin molecule–part of the world’s greatest pharmacy in your head. Take advantage of it!

It is now largely accepted in the medical community that “mind/body” connections are crucial to well being, and that this complex connection between viscera and mental functions have significant impacts on our physiological states. Even the Federal body the National Institutes of Health (NIH) acknowledges this connection:

Over the past 20 years, mind-body medicine has provided evidence that psychological factors can play a major role in such illnesses as heart disease, and that mind-body techniques can aid in their treatment. Clinical trials have indicated mind-body therapies to be helpful in managing arthritis and other chronic pain conditions. There is also evidence they can help to improve psychological functioning and quality of life, and may help to ease symptoms of disease.

If that’s the case, then Oxytocin is one of the keys to a healthy mind/body connection–because physical interaction is at the core of its release. Here are some of more interesting aspects of the love molecule.

Physical Contact Releases Oxytocin. The more I learn about our ancient brain, the more I find that so many of the electro-chemical tools we’ve developed have evolved to serve one purpose: survival. Oxytocin is released as a result of physical contact–a simple hug or handshake can release oxytocin–with the results creating a “bonding” sensation between us human animals. Bonding is key to developing groups, and in a group, one is more likely to survive than outside a group (that’s as true today as it was thousands of years ago). The great thing about oxytocin is that it’s readily available to you and those around you. All you need to do is simply hug someone or shake their hand. The simple act of bodily contact will cause your brain to release low levels of oxytocin — both in yourself and in the person you’re touching. social contact (and lack thereof) can have profound physical effects. Just holding a loved one’s hand lowers blood pressure and reduces pain. On the flip side, according to a study by the University College London,  lack of affectionate physical contact is associated with higher levels of stress hormones and inflammation. “Social contact itself also may have specific biological consequences that are important for health maintenance,” according to the stud.

There’s even evidence that simply gazing at someone will do the trick — or even just thinking about them. And you shouldn’t feel limited by the human species; it also helps to hug and play with your pets.

Sexy Time…Oxytocin is known for helping couples develop intimate attachments, including sexual intimacy and bonding. Chemically speaking, oxytocin works together with other chemical compounds:

Oxytocin, along with dopamine and norepinephrine, are believed to be highly critical in human pair-bonding. But not only that, it also increases the desire for couples to gaze at one another, it creates sexual arousal, and it helps males maintain their erections. When you’re sexually aroused or excited, oxytocin levels increase in your brain significantly — a primary factor for bringing about an orgasm. And during the orgasm itself, the brain is flooded with oxytocin — a possible explanation for why (some) couples like to cuddle after. [source]

Reduced Social Anxieties. Given its ability to break-down social barriers, induce feelings of optimism, increase self-esteem, and build trust, oxytocin is increasingly being seen as something that can help people overcome their social inhibitions and fears. Studies are showing that it may be effective intreating debilitating shyness, or to help people with social anxieties and mood disorders. It’s also thought that oxytocin could help people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.Anti-Depressant for Mothers and Stress Reliever. Oxytocin is known to help alleviate postpartum depression among new mothers. It follows that, in addition to creating greater sense of personal and emotional bonding that oxytocin helps relieve stress by lowering cortisol levels and blood pressure.

Increased Empathy. As it happens, this wonder molecule has been shown to increase empathy–and giving. According to George Dvorsky’s excellent article at io9.com, “one study required persons to share money with a stranger, and infusions of oxytocin were shown to make some subjects as much as 80% (wow!) more generous than those on a placebo.”

This is Great, but…there’s also evidence that administering oxytocin as a prescribed drug can lead to enhancing fight or flight and “the fear memory” components of the brain. According to a recent study:

The established view that oxytocin reduces fear and anxiety has recently been challenged, as humans given oxytocin intranasally exhibit increased recollection of aversive events and startle responses to stressful stimuli. Consistent with these data, oxytocin reactivity is associated with increased post-conflict anxiety.

Hmmm, just typing out loud here, but natural oxytocin production, organically produced due to natural stimulation, versus the pharmaceutical version. This does not surprise me, somehow, that oxytocin–externally introduced into the system (without context, without touch and all the receptors associated with human contact–might not be a panacea.
Stilll, that’s no excuse for not getting your oxytocin fix today.

Go hug, kiss, gaze at, and otherwise physically interact with someone you love (oh, and make sure that it’s reciprocal!!! 😉 or give out a nice dose of oxytocin to your favorite critter. It can do wonders…

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