Do you remember the first time you laid eyes on your significant other, partner, spouse, or just about anyone you were attracted to? Do you remember what that felt? Whatever that was (i.e., butterflies in your stomach, sinking feeling, or spark of chemistry), a fascinating hormone apparently caused that “weird” feeling.
What is oxytocin?
Also called the “love hormone,” oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone and a neurotransmitter that is produced in the hypothalamus and transmitted into the bloodstream by the pituitary gland. The hormone is released during childbirth, sex, and lactation to help reproductive functions.
The hormone appears to be present in men, as well. It plays a role in sperm movement and the production of testosterone.
Why is it called the “love hormone?”
The “love hormone” has a significant role in social interactions and sexual reproduction. A 2012 study revealed that people in the early stages of romantic attachment had higher levels of oxytocin, with the levels lasting for at least six months. Likewise, the hormone is also stimulated during sexual activity and orgasms.
When the hormone is released into certain parts of the brain, it can affect emotion and cognitive and social behaviors. Oxytocin triggers feelings of love and protection, which naturally occurs when parents and children look into one another’s eyes or when they embrace. Other relationship-enhancing effects also include empathy, trust, and the processing of bonding cues.
Here are some fast (and fun) facts about this powerful hormone:
- It is also called “the bonding hormone” or “the cuddle hormone.”
- It is prescribed as a drug to help in childbirth and treat gynecological conditions.
- Women usually have higher levels of oxytocin than men.
- Oxytocin is produced in all mammals in precisely the same chemical composition as it appears in humans.
- Human-dog interactions, including acts such as staring into each other’s eyes, evoke a significant increase of oxytocin, much like the one between mothers and their infants.
- When people hug or kiss a loved one, the oxytocin levels spike up.
- It’s one of the three “happy hormones,” the other two are dopamine and serotonin.
Six effects of the “love hormone” to the body
1. It plays a vital role in childbirth and lactation.
One of its primary roles in the body is to aid in the contraction of the uterus during labor and lactation. The hormone is produced in large amounts during labor. It escalates the contractions that open up the cervix, allowing the baby to move through the birth canal. Physicians have been using Pitocin, a synthetic oxytocin, for decades to help with labor.
After birth, oxytocin continues to induce uterine contractions, which promotes the production of milk in the breast and discharge from the nipple.
2. It helps females form a bond with their partner during sexual activity.
With oxytocin being associated with social behavior, it covers both sexual behavior and bonding between couples. A study found that oxytocin produced in the brain of a woman during sexual activity plays a role in forming a monogamous bond with her sexual partner. This is where the love hormone or “cuddle drug” is in action.
3. It could improve social skills.
Previous studies found that levels of natural oxytocin were noticeably lower in people with autism, a developmental disorder characterized by challenges with social skills and communication.
Stanford findings show that those with autism who received intranasal oxytocin spray saw a significant improvement in social behavior.
4. It boosts protective instincts.
A study suggested that oxytocin stimulates the defensive aggression of a person against anyone who might come off as a threat to someone’s social group—for example, soldiers who defend their colleagues during war.
This protectionist instinct was initially discovered in animal studies, where oxytocin was shown to trigger an animal’s protective behavior against predators—an essential factor for survival.
5. It promotes sleep.
Oxytocin combats the effects of cortisol—the body’s known stress hormone. A study in the journal Regulatory Peptides showed that when a person is under stress-free conditions, the oxytocin released in the brain naturally induces sleep.
The stimulation of this hormone allows one to feel relaxed and tranquil, helping them to sleep, which makes sense since oxytocin has a calming effect.
6. It helps overcome fear.
Researchers at the University of Bonn Hospital found that the love hormone has the power to inhibit the brain’s fear center.
To prompt fear, scientists displayed a series of images to their subjects and jolted 70% of them with a small electric shock. Then, the researchers gave half of the subjects oxytocin nasal spray and showed them the same images sans the electric shock. Those who received oxytocin were less afraid of the shock, and the brain’s fear signals were less active.
A molecule that makes you feel more than warm and fuzzy
Researchers continue to shed light on humanity’s understanding of love. Thanks to the field of endocrinology, they take on the challenge of further understanding the psychological and behavioral effects of love’s hormonal counterpart—oxytocin.
From being involved in childbirth to intensifying orgasms, this chemical composition serves as an essential compound in the neurochemical system. If you think you are experiencing endocrine or neurological issues, do not be afraid to seek professional help. You can visit MakatiMed’s neurology and endocrinology centers for consultation.