You know when you feel extremely close to your partner? Like after sex or whilst sharing a moment that enhances your bond and makes you feel even more in love or lust?
Yeah, oxytocin plays a big role in facilitating that special bond. But its role doesn’t just stop there…
What Is Oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a powerful hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain. For many, oxytocin is referred to as the “love hormone” or the “cuddle hormone”.
And while oxytocin is often associated with romantic relationships between partners, it also plays a big part in mother-child bonding, sexual activity and arousal, and mental health.
In fact, some endocrinologists (those who specialise in glands and hormones), believe that oxytocin could loosely be compared to the drug, ecstasy, as both increase one’s feeling of trust and intimacy (more on that later…)
Alas, oxytocin doesn’t produce a feeling of being “high”, so there’s no immediate worry of a synthetic form of oxytocin being abused.
Oxytocin in Sex and Love
This hormone has been linked to sex and love because of its ability to induce social bonding, trust, and communication (especially during arguments), which is essential for the survival of species and the formation of emotional relationships.
In a number of tests on various animals, it was found that an injection of oxytocin led to some incredibly loving and sexual behaviour.
For example, female prairie voles were more likely to form monogamous relationships with their partner when injected with oxytocin during sexual activity. Another interesting example: in male rats, oxytocin injections in the cerebrospinal fluid caused spontaneous erections.
And when it comes to us humans, it was found that individuals in the beginning stages of a romantic relationship had higher levels of oxytocin (which persisted for six months) than those who were single.
What’s also fascinating is that research conducted in 2012 showed that men with higher levels of oxytocin may be influenced to keep a greater distance from attractive female strangers, reducing the likelihood of infidelity.
This could be because the romance-oxytocin relationship works in a loop: the more time one spends with their partner, the more oxytocin they produce. The more oxytocin one produces, the more one may desire or feel closer to their partner.
Additionally, it was found that “those with higher oxytocin levels had more sex with fewer partners,” which shows that these individuals had longer lasting relationships.
Oxytocin and Orgasm
By now, you know that oxytocin is released when two people spend quality time together and when an attraction is present. But oxytocin too is released during orgasm, only for a short period of time, which can be deceptive.
After climax, two individuals have a higher level of trust, which creates a positive emotion. And just like in animals, humans enjoy the reward that comes from having sex and achieving orgasm. But this short-lived rush of oxytocin causes different reactions in men and women.
In women, oxytocin may create a feeling of intimacy and closeness with her partner, making her believe that her partner might be the perfect match for her. In this way, a woman can sometimes be blinded by the powerful effects of oxytocin. But this hormone doesn’t have the ability to decipher whether her partner is, in fact, trustworthy or not.
Men, however, once intimacy is over, generally “go back to being themselves,” according to Graziano Breuning, Ph.D.
Oxytocin and Happiness
It’s no secret that oxytocin has the ability to make someone feel positive emotions. And according to Paul Zak, Ph.D., high levels of oxytocin are associated with increased feelings of happiness and well-being, as well as kindness.
He tested this theory by recruiting 60 female college students, and analysing their blood samples before and after receiving money from a stranger. These women were given the option to return some of the money or keep it. The results were: the females who returned some of the money had higher levels of oxytocin.
Zak also studied the correlation between men and their levels of oxytocin. He found that men with higher levels of the hormone (ingested nasally) were more generous after watching public service ads on sensitive subjects, like global warming. The men given the hormone donated 56 percent more money to these causes than those in the placebo group.
Fun fact? Zak believes that advertisers use the power of oxytocin to sell their products. An example would be toilet paper commercials that involve puppies. People like puppies, thus they’ll release oxytocin, making them more likely to buy the product.
Just like oxytocin brings about feelings of closeness and bonding between partners, it also creates a strong bond between mother and child. It also has a strong effect on a woman’s reproductive system.
For example, in pregnant women, it is oxytocin that sends signals to the uterus to contract in order to induce labour.
After giving birth, oxytocin assists in breastfeeding. This is because, when a baby latches onto its mother’s breast, oxytocin is released, causing the discharge of milk.
And when it comes to parenting styles, mothers with higher levels of oxytocin have shown to be more affectionate, more attentive, and more engaging (speaking or singing in a certain way).
Interestingly, this mother-child bond is not only restrictive to biological mothers, but also foster and adoptive mothers…
Oxytocin and Father-Child Bonding
While the mother-child bond is arguably more influenced by the release of oxytocin, fathers too can display positive behaviour from this hormone.
One study found that fathers who helped direct their child’s attention to certain objects and encouraged them to explore, had higher levels of oxytocin than fathers who did not display this kind of behaviour with their child.
The lead researcher of this study, Ruth Feldman Ph.D, said:
“We found that after oxytocin administration, fathers’ salivary oxytocin rose dramatically, more than 10-fold, but moreover, similar increases were found in the infants’ oxytocin. In the oxytocin conditions, key parenting behavior, including father touch and social reciprocity, increased but infant social behavior, including social gaze and exploratory behavior, increased as well.”
Oxytocin and Mental Health
As if oxytocin needs more praise, there is yet another pro when it comes to this powerful hormone. It’s been shown that oxytocin plays a positive role in children with autism, individuals with social anxiety, and those living with addiction.
Oxytocin and Autism
While outdated, a 1998 study found that children with autism had significantly lower levels of oxytocin than those without autism.
Later, a different study found that there was a decrease in autism spectrum repetitive behaviours when oxytocin was given to autistic adults intravenously.
A third study, done in 2007, showed that adults who were administered oxytocin were able to recognise and retain the importance of speech intonation.
Oxytocin and Social Anxiety
As we know, oxytocin increases feelings of wellbeing and the ability to form strong bonds, which is why researcher Jason Yee, Ph.D., was intrigued to learn about the effects of oxytocin on those with stress and anxiety.
His study was done on prairie voles, and after creating a brief stressful situation for these animals, he gave them a dose of oxytocin. The results showed that those who were alone while receiving the hormone had higher levels of anxiety than those who had an animal buddy with them.
“When animals receive oxytocin and are given an opportunity to recuperate in the presence of a familiar partner, their bodies may release extra oxytocin, which in turn appears to facilitate a less anxious pattern of behavior,” said Yee.
This has researchers curious about the effect oxytocin might have on humans living with anxiety, believing that—if accompanied by a friend or in the midst of social contact—it may reduce levels of anxiety.
Oxytocin and Addictive Behaviours
A study on prairie voles taught Yan Liu and his team of researchers that pair-bonding tends to decrease the rewarding properties associated with psychostimulants (methamphetamine).
An additional study by Mary R. Lee and her research team showed that repeated drug use in animals resulted in lower levels of oxytocin…besides the use of the drug, MDMA.
MDMA actually showed an increase in the production of oxytocin in animal test subjects. This could be because the drug increases one’s feelings of empathy, closeness, happiness, and prompts more social behaviour.
General Point: Let’s give the hormone oxytocin a big round of applause for its ability to make us happier, healthier, and more in love!