Last Updated on July 26, 2022 by Valarie Ward
Pleasure Chemicals Series
This week, we are continuing our pleasure chemicals series with a look at a hormone associated with love and other positive social feelings: Oxytocin. This series looks at what chemicals in the brain might be contributing to your good or bad mood, what these chemicals do in the body, and how certain lifestyle changes might give you more happy chemicals and an overall happier life–chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, and gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA).
However, the usual caveat: hormones, neurotransmitters, and other related chemicals are poorly researched, defined, and understood within the scientific community. We learn new things about our body’s chemicals every day, so this article can only be based on the information we know right now.
And another note: Oxytocin is not the same thing as Oxycontin, the brand name of the opioid Oxycodone. They simply share a few letters!
Oxytocin: The love chemical
Oxytocin is both a hormone and a neuropeptide–the latter of which is a bit different than the neurotransmitters we’ve been discussing. Hormones are chemicals that carry messages from one part of the body to another, often over long distances–such as the stomach signaling the brain that it’s time to eat (the hormone ghrelin). Neurotransmitters like serotonin are similar, but they typically only transfer messages over a very short distance.
Neuropeptides work similarly to neurotransmitters, but they are much slower. Think of the rush of excitement you get from buying something online, thanks to the neurotransmitter dopamine. It can be intense, but it’s also brief. Compare that to the way eating a meal keeps your blood sugar stable for several hours, thanks to the neuropeptide insulin. Oxytocin is more like the latter category.
Oxytocin is called the love chemical because it is an important chemical relating to social bonding, including friendship, parental attachment, and libido. However, oxytocin has many other effects on the body, including:
- Assisting in childbirth
- Assisting in lactation
- Affecting the production of semen and ejaculation in those assigned male at birth
- Sexual arousal
- Increasing your ability to recognize faces and names
- Increasing trust
- Helping develop romantic attachments
- Helping parents bond with their infant children
Low levels of oxytocin (associated with loneliness, among other things) are related to a number of psychiatric conditions. These can include:
- Depression: While studies about the direct link between depression and oxytocin have been few and far between, one research review looked at the relationship between oxytocin and several other chemicals implicated in depression (serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, inflammation, and others) and found a possible link.
- Anxiety disorders: A detailed 2014 research review discussed the role of oxytocin in a number of anxiety disorders including anxiety, PTSD, and eating disorders and found a common link.
- Addiction: One study shows that oxytocin may make it less likely for you to build a tolerance or dependence to drugs, therefore curbing drug addiction.
It is also possible to have too much oxytocin. In those assigned female at birth (AFAB), too much oxytocin is rare, but is associated with an overactive uterus which can make pregnancy more difficult. It is more common in those assigned male at birth (AMAB) and associated with benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), in which the prostate grows and makes urination harder. Over half of AMABs over the age of 60 experience BPH, possibly due to the decrease in testosterone as they age.
Getting More Oxytocin
If you are feeling lonely or touch-starved, you may benefit from a bit more oxytocin in your life. Here are some ways to get it:
- Social interaction is probably the best way to get oxytocin and combat loneliness. Spending time with or talking to friends is one way, but note that text communication does not increase oxytocin; there usually needs to be an element of speech. Acts of kindness for friends or strangers can increase oxytocin, too.
- Add some Touch to your friendly interactions (with consent, of course!) to transfer some extra oxytocin benefits. A hug, massage, cuddle, or sex can all increase oxytocin (and yes, masturbation counts, too.) If you can’t find a friend to cuddle, your pet works, too.
- Food and music are two other ways to increase oxytocin, so taking a friend or partner on a dinner date with live music might be just the thing you need!
- Oxytocin is associated with feelings of love–and a bit of self-love can go a long way here (aside from the kind we already mentioned). Meditation can increase oxytocin and decrease stress–or try yoga for some mind and body relaxation with oxytocin as a side effect.
Oxytocin is an important chemical that helps us form social bonds with friends, communities, and partners. It’s released with social activities (excluding communication), touch, music, and food. Not having enough oxytocin is correlated with several psychiatric conditions, while having too much oxytocin is associated with a couple of physical health concerns.
It’s probably been a bit difficult to get oxytocin these past few years while we have all been socially distancing or isolating from the pandemic, but when it is safe for you and your loved ones to go back to social interactions, take advantage of that and enjoy the good feelings that come with it.