Other than going into labor, the number one means of acquiring the neuropeptide oxytocin, is through skin-to-skin contact with another human being -- simple touch and closeness. Contact with animals has some beneficial effect as well.
Oxytocin has a powerful effect on infants, but brings greater bonding and mental and physical health for everyone.
The neuropeptide oxytocin, released by your pituitary gland, is a naturally occurring hormone in your body with incredibly powerful, health-giving properties.
Oxytocin and Human Bonding
Oxytocin has long been associated with matters of the heart. It has been called the “pair bonding” and “cuddle” hormone for its effect on stable monogamous relationships.
The release of oxytocin during childbirth stimulates the contractions which move the baby through the birth canal toward delivery. During breastfeeding, the presence of oxytocin promotes the release of milk and facilitates maternal behavior and bonding between new mothers and their infants.
Oxytocin is released by both men and women during sexual intercourse, and even having a meal with other people can elevate the levels of this hormone in your body.
The Love Hormone
Only three percent of all the species of mammals are able to form lasting monogamous relationships. Fortunately, humans are among that three percent.
So are prairie voles. And these small, highly sociable animals have been a focus of scientific research into the nature of love.
Prairie voles bond for life after a short mating period. Once bonded, they do everything together and show no interest in other potential mates. The male becomes protective of the female, and both sexes are affectionate, attentive parents.
Contrast the prairie voles with their very close cousin, the montane vole.
The montane vole has no interest in bonding and engages in sex with multiple partners throughout life. The difference between these two vole species, which are otherwise 99% alike? Receptors for the “love” hormone oxytocin and its pal, vasopressin.
Research indicates the location of receptors for oxytocin and another similar hormone, vasopressin, makes all the difference when it comes to long term social bonding and monogamy.
The more of these receptors you have in areas of your brain associated with reward and reinforcement, the more likely you are to fall in love and remain monogamous.
The Three Stages of Love
According to Helen Fisher, a researcher at Rutgers University and author of “Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love,” there are three stages of love -- lust, attraction, and attachment. Each stage is marked by the hormones which drive your feelings and behavior.
- In the lust stage, both men and women are driven by the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen. This stage usually lasts from a few weeks to a few months.
- In the second stage, attraction, there are three main neurotransmitters at work: adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin. During this stage, lust moves toward the desire for a specific partner, and feelings of romance and commitment develop. Research indicates this stage usually lasts from one to three years.
- In the final and most important stage, attachment, scientists believe the two major hormones at work are oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin is released by both sexes during orgasm and steadily deepens the feelings of attachment and closeness. This stage features the bonding which is necessary for a long-term relationship.
According to Fisher, love can start in any one of these stages. Some people have sex with a new partner and then fall in love. Others fall in love first, before having sex. Still others first develop a deep feeling of attachment to another, which moves to romance and mutual sexual attraction.
The Power Also to Heal
The more oxytocin your pituitary gland releases, the better able you are to handle life’s stressors.
Research into oxytocin has revealed its far-reaching health benefits. The key mechanism seems to be the hormone’s ability to counteract stress.
Oxytocin decreases the level of stress hormones (primarily cortisol) your body manufactures and lowers your blood pressure response to anxiety-producing events.
Oxytocin quite likely plays a role in why pet owners heal more quickly from illness, why couples live longer than singles, and why support groups work for people with addictions and chronic diseases.
Oxytocin has also been found to reduce the cravings of drug and alcohol addiction, as well as for sweets.
There is an elegant logic to emerging science like the study linked above which suggests oxytocin has the power to not only keep your heart in good shape, but also to heal it from damage by reducing cell death and inflammation.
Scientists have also tested the healing effect of oxytocin on skin wounds in hamsters. Wounds on animals that were living with a sibling healed almost twice as quickly as those on isolated animals, and the paired hamsters also produced lower amounts of cortisol.
Say No to Synthetic Oxytocin
Under no circumstance should you consider using a synthetic form of oxytocin (brand names include Pitocin, Syntocinon, as well as generic oxytocin). Synthetic hormones can seriously damage your health.
However, like most areas of life, there are occasional exceptions to nearly every recommendation. An exception here might be during childbirth when labor is not progressing naturally, and with the understanding that synthetic oxytocin is not without risks to both mother and baby.
Are You Isolated from Friends and Family?
If you’re not currently in a life situation conducive to producing enough of your own oxytocin on a regular basis, the good news is there are some alternatives you can use to help you deal in a healthy way with your emotional response to stress and anxiety.
With the already known and still-to-emerge health and quality of life benefits to be derived from the natural release of oxytocin in your body, your best course of action is to make sure you’re cultivating warm, loving, intimate relationships, no matter what stage of life you’re in.
Additionally, if you have a pet, just a few minutes petting your dog or cat can promote the release of your body’s “happiness” hormones, including oxytocin.
Since touch anywhere on your body, as well as positive interactions and psychological support are known to increase oxytocin levels, you might also consider:
- Holding hands
- Kissing and hugging
- Giving and receiving a backrub
- Nurturing others
- Getting a massage
- Practicing mind-body therapies like breathing exercises and yoga
It is another marvel of the human mind-body connection that intimacy can protect us from disease. Conversely, a lack of intimacy can bring on a wide range of health problems.