From sex to breastfeeding, oxytocin plays a key role in every relationship we have.
By Annie Hayes
Often dubbed the ‘love hormone’, oxytocin is the powerful neurotransmitter behind the warm, fuzzy feeling we’re all familiar with. It forges a bond between mother and baby, sparks sexual chemistry between romantic lovers, and creates lasting ties between close friends.
We spoke to consultant psychiatrist Dr Tom Pennybacker, chief medical officer at My Online Therapy, psychosexual therapist and intimacy coach Duchess Iphie, and Dr Deborah Lee of Dr Fox Online Pharmacy, to find out more about how the love hormone works its magic:
What is oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter – a chemical messaging agent. It’s ‘one of the body’s feel-good hormones that counteracts stress hormones, like cortisol,’ explains Dr Pennybacker, and is ‘produced by the hypothalamus, a small region at the base of the brain, before being secreted by the nearby pituitary gland’.
Oxytocin is often dubbed the love hormone or cuddle hormone because it’s stimulated by – and also facilitates – social bonding. ‘Levels rise when you experience the sensation of touch,’ explains Dr Lee. ‘Touching means any form of skin-to-skin contact – holding hands, stroking, cuddling, kissing, or having sexual intercourse.’
It also affects another part of the brain, the amygdala, which lessens fear and facilitates feelings of friendliness and trust, says Dr Lee. ‘Studies have shown that oxytocin release is associated with an increase in positive social behaviour, such as an increase in eye gazing, and an improved ability to judge facial expression and tone of voice,’ she says.
When it comes to bonding, oxytocin works in conjunction with other feel-good hormones, such as dopamine and serotonin.
However, it’s worth pointing out that oxytocin’s interaction with the amygdala differs between sexes. ‘Like many hormones, oxytocin seems to affect men and women differently,’ says Dr Pennybacker. ‘Some research suggests that oxytocin helps women identify potential friendships and, in contrast, men use it to identify competitive relationships.’
When it comes to bonding, oxytocin is no lone ranger. It works in conjunction with other feel-good hormones, such as dopamine (the ‘reward’ hormone) and serotonin (the ‘happy’ hormone). When you feel loving towards someone – or something – your brain releases a surge of dopamine, your serotonin levels peak, and oxytocin is produced. This trifecta of causes leads you to experience a surge of positive emotion.
How does oxytocin make you feel?
Oxytocin makes us feel warm and loved. ‘You’ll know when oxytocin is at work when you feel a big swell of love in your chest, or you feel like you’re being surrounded with fuzzy feelings and positive vibes,’ Duchess Iphie says. ‘You feel more attached, more loving than usual. This feeling can be addictive.’
As well as making us feel close to our partners, ‘some studies suggest that it may even make us want to commit and form long-term bonds,’ adds Dr Pennybacker. And that’s not all. The hormone also makes us feel reassured, safe and calm, and has ‘been linked to everything from pain relief to lower stress levels,’ he says.
Indeed, oxytocin is one of the body’s natural mechanisms to help lower stress, says Dr Lee. ‘It’s known to dampen down the sympathetic nervous system – this is the ‘fight or flight’ system that goes into overdrive when we feel anxious or threatened,’ she says. ‘Oxytocin stimulates the opposing parasympathetic nervous system to slow the heart and respiratory rate.’
What triggers oxytocin release?
While it’s often referred to as the love hormone, oxytocin plays a key part in every relationship we have. ‘Any close bodily contact results in the release of oxytocin,’ says Dr Lee. ‘Large amounts of oxytocin are produced during childbirth, breastfeeding, and from the positive experiences when a mother cradles her baby.
It’s easy to underestimate the power of human touch, says Dr Pennybacker, ‘but we’re social beings and we’re designed to connect. Therefore it’s no surprise that, when we hug, cuddle or spoon a loved one, it releases oxytocin. Lots of research has shown that random acts of kindness can help us get a “helper’s high” and this can be put down to increased levels of oxytocin also.’
Why is oxytocin called the love drug?
Oxytocin is most commonly associated with romantic love. Research shows that oxytocin is at its highest levels during the beginning stages of relationships, says Iphie. ‘That doesn’t mean it disappears the longer a relationship lasts – it just means that there’s a boost before evening out,’ she says.
The hormone is also released during sexual activity, and is even linked to the intensity of orgasms. In men and people with penises, oxytocin is a powerful vasodilator and therefore vital for erectile function, says Dr Lee. It also has a role in sperm transport, and may cause contractions within the prostate gland at the moment of ejaculation.
In women and people with vulvas, meanwhile, ‘it’s thought to cause uterine contractions at orgasm, which facilitate the deposition of sperm in the upper part of the genital tract,’ she adds. ‘The stronger the orgasm, the greater the levels of oxytocin. After orgasm, oxytocin contributes to feelings of warmth and sexual satisfaction.’
‘Oxytocin is produced when you take part in any form of warm social interaction, such as a hug or petting a dog or cat.’
Oxytocin also encourages fidelity, because of the way it affects reward pathways in the brain, says Iphie. ‘If we are intimate with a regular, reliable monogamous partner then whoosh: more oxytocin. It’s a loop of behaviour we stay in.’ In that way, oxytocin ‘can strengthen relationships and improve sexual pleasure,’ she says.
‘If you put work in with your partner after the honeymoon period, you can have a great sex life and keep the oxytocin flowing,’ she continues. ‘Once you achieve this, you’re onto a winning cycle of closeness, oxytocin production and more closeness. I’m all for a beneficial cycle of communication, love and sex; boosting your oxytocin can increase your partner’s, and vice versa.’
In a study by the Medical University of Vienna, women with sexual dysfunction were treated with oxytocin or a placebo, and instructed to keep a joint diary about their sex life with their partner. ‘Amazingly, the women who were treated with oxytocin boosted their own sexuality and their partner’s – and the same happened in the placebo group,’ says Iphie. ‘Being open with each other leads to more oxytocin, which leads to better communication. You don’t need a dose of oxytocin either – starting to talk can help.’
Oxytocin and childbirth
Unsurprisingly, oxytocin plays a key role in parenting and specifically motherhood. ‘This happy hormone signals the uterus to contract to begin labour,’ says Dr Pennybacker. ‘If labour is slower than expected, a doctor may even suggest an oxytocin drip to speed it up.’
Immediately after giving birth, close contact between the mother and her baby results in further oxytocin release, says Dr Lee. ‘When the mother holds the baby with direct skin-to-skin contact, this warmth and closeness, along with repeated light touch and stroking, results in the production and release of oxytocin for both mother and baby,’ she explains.
Oxytocin is also released during breastfeeding. ‘The hormone allows the baby to get breast milk from the breast, and it also causes the uterus to shrink after delivery,’ says Dr Pennybacker. ‘On top of this, oxytocin is thought to play a big role in mother-child bonding, helping to promote a loving, nurturing, and strong emotional relationship between mother and baby.’
While oxytocin is important for mother and baby bonding, there are benefits for other caregivers too. Evidence shows that the love hormone, facilitated by skin-to-skin contact, can have an effect on the father or co-parents hormones too, raising dopamine and increasing oxytocin which both encourage parental bonding.
Do foods contain oxytocin?
If you’re hoping to give your love hormone stores a boost, according to Dr Lee a number of foods have been found to increase oxytocin production:
• Vitamin C
Some studies have shown that high-dose vitamin C increases libido, and is associated with raised levels of oxytocin. Foods rich in vitamin C include citrus fruits, strawberries, broccoli, sprouts, and potatoes.
Research has shown that for oxytocin to work effectively requires an adequate level of magnesium. Foods rich in magnesium include fish (eg salmon, and halibut), leafy green vegetables, beans and nuts.
Taurine is an amino-acid and has been demonstrated to stimulate oxytocin production in rats. Foods rich in taurine include shellfish, such as scallops or clams, and dark turkey meat.
Recently there has been a great deal of interest in the potential role of probiotics on mood disorders. Probiotics containing different species of L.reuteri have been linked to the production of oxytocin.
Medical uses of oxytocin
Synthetic oxytocin (Syntocinon) is only licensed for use in the UK for induction of labour. However, as Dr Lee outlines below it is being explored as a treatment option for several conditions, including:
- Autism: Research has shown that children with autism tend to have lower levels of oxytocin. Research has had mixed results. However, studies are ongoing.
- Mental health conditions: Oxytocin has an integral role in social function and behaviour. Clinical trials are currently underway looking at the effects of oxytocin on dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and drug dependency.
- Male fertility: In one small study, men with oligospermia who were given a dose of oxytocin prior to masturbation doubled the amount of sperm in the ejaculate. Research is ongoing.
- Prostatic disease: Oxytocin is responsible for the degree of muscular tone in the prostate. It may be that a drug that blocks the effect of oxytocin could improve symptoms.
Negative effects of oxytocin
Recent research suggests that oxytocin may have a dark side too. ‘Just as it can boost feelings of love and warmth, science has shown that it can also enhance more negative traits,’ says Iphie. ‘If it can boost a feeling of love and closeness, then it makes sense that oxytocin could also amplify feelings of envy.’
Although oxytocin is associated with feelings of trust, empathy and generosity, some research hints that it may also promote negative feelings such as jealousy, adds Dr Pennybacker. ‘In a similar vein, while oxytocin is linked to bonding and friendships it could also encourage favouritism or prejudice, resulting in the creation of cliques and “in” groups,’ he says.
Furthermore, oxytocin has also been shown to directly cause emotional pain, according to a study by Northwestern University found. This is because it strengthens social memory in the brain – for better and worse. Oxytocin appears to be the reason stressful social situations resonate for a long time after the event, and even trigger future fear and anxiety.
Where oxytocin is administered medically, there can be drug reactions and side-effects. ‘Acute severe allergy (anaphylaxis) is rare but has been reported,’ says Dr Lee. ‘The most common side effects from the use of oxytocin in labour are nausea and vomiting, alterations in the heart rate to cause a slow, fast or irregular pulse, excessive bleeding, headache, blurred vision, dizziness, and weakness.’