Empathy, trust, serenity, love — these good feelings are the kind of emotions we’d all like to foster more of. But is there a hormone our bodies produce that makes these feelings more likely to surface?
“Oxytocin is called ‘the love hormone’ because of the important role it plays in human bonding,” says Laura Apyan, Women’s Health Case Manager and Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC) at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “Oxytocin is released during childbirth and breastfeeding to help bond mother and child. It also plays a role in pleasurable stimulations such as hugging, cuddling and sexual intimacy.”
How does oxytocin work?
Apyan: Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter, or a chemical messenger. It carries signals at the nerve synapses (junctions) from one nerve cell to another in the brain. Or to cells in the body that need to take action. Other common neurotransmitters you’ve probably heard of include serotonin and dopamine. Both help to control mood. Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus. This is an area of the brain that controls emotions. Oxytocin is released by the pituitary gland.
What does oxytocin do in the body?
Apyan: Studies show increases in oxytocin when people are hugging, kissing, cuddling, holding hands or having intimate relations. It’s triggered by positive physical contact, as well as social bonding, positive eye contact and even laughing.
The most obvious roles oxytocin plays in a female’s body is during pregnancy or postpartum.
Apyan: As labor approaches, smooth-muscle contractions in the uterus. And the membranes around the baby stimulate the release of oxytocin. Sometimes providers use a synthetic form of oxytocin (Pitocin) to induce labor or make contractions stronger when the process needs to speed up for the safety of the mother or the baby.
Apyan: Immediately after labor, Pitocin may also be used to help the uterus contract down to prevent excess bleeding after vaginal delivery.
Breastfeeding and bonding
Apyan: When an infant starts to suckle during breastfeeding, it stimulates the brain to produce oxytocin. That causes the “let down” of milk by stimulating smooth muscle in the ducts of the breast tissue.
Apyan: The release of oxytocin is one of the physiological advantages of breastfeeding, which is so powerful it’s been shown to decrease infant mortality in third-world countries. When moms breastfeed, abandonment of newborns — even in extreme low-poverty situations — drops to almost zero. We believe that’s due to a release of oxytocin in moms that fosters relationship-building.
Benefits of breastfeeding for moms
· Increased bonding
· Normalized blood sugar, especially for diabetic moms
· Decrease in risk of breast cancer, diabetes and uterine cancer
Benefits of breastfeeding for babies
· Increased immunities
· Brain protection
· Stabilization for preemies
· Protective qualities for the gut
Why is oxytocin called “the love hormone”?
Apyan: Oxytocin is associated with hormones that signal infatuated love: dopamine and serotonin. Its production is not a conscious thing; it occurs naturally. But all those feelings you get when you’re falling in love with someone can also be activated in these bonding scenarios.
Females typically have higher levels of oxytocin than males. Studies have tried to look at how oxytocin affects sexes differently. While it isn’t well researched, scientists have reported some key observations in how sexes process oxytocin:
- For females, oxytocin often plays a role in social situations that help identify kinships or friendships.
- For males, oxytocin seems to improve the ability to identify competitive relationships and trigger a fight-or-flight response.
What conditions can oxytocin help treat?
Apyan: Oxytocin has been successfully used to treat anxiety, postpartum depression, PTSD, irritable bowel syndrome and substance abuse issues. Certain drugs (like cocaine) stimulate pleasure areas in the brain just like oxytocin does. So it can be used to help people overcome those types of addiction.
One of the most promising areas of research on oxytocin is in treating autism spectrum disorder (ASD). For children with ASD, recognizing and reading emotions is often their biggest disconnect. Researchers think they may be able to use oxytocin in the form of a nasal spray to help people with autism and other anxiety disorders.
What can you do to stimulate oxytocin production naturally?
Apyan: As a “happy hormone,” oxytocin is something you may be able to boost naturally through:
- Becoming a better listener
- Listening to music
- Trying music therapy
- Massage or reflexology
- Practicing empathy
- Spending time with your pets
- Having sex
- Showing someone you’re thinking about them
BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also use tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the in the Member Wellness Center under the Managing Your Health tab.