Oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone released by the pituitary gland that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain. This hormone impacts sexual, sensual, and social behaviors. For instance, when an individual is hugged or kissed by someone else, their levels of oxytocin surge. Oxytocin is linked to orgasms, empathy, sex, birth, generosity, breastfeeding, cuddling, and other forms of connection. Due to this hormone's impact on sexual arousal and social behaviors, it is often dubbed the “cuddle chemical,” “cuddle hormone,” or the "love hormone." However, there are many layers and intricacies to oxytocin, its impacts on human behavior, well being, and other related factors that may be worth exploring.
The Production Of Oxytocin
According to the American Psychological Association, the production of oxytocin begins in the forebrain before being released by the posterior pituitary into the blood, brain, or spinal cord. After release, the hormone acts as a chemical messenger and influences various human functions, social interactions, and behaviors. While oxytocin has many impacts on the body, its connection to and influence on what humans deem love, bonding, and belonging can be interesting and complex.
Oxytocin And Love
While oxytocin's impact on love is not new, the understanding and discovery of this phenomenon are recent. Decades ago, oxytocin was thought only to impact particular bodily functions such as pregnancy and breastfeeding. For instance, when someone is going through the latter stages of pregnancy, oxytocin starts to kick in to stimulate uterine contractions and is released during the child's birth. Nerves impulses trigger the brain to release oxytocin during labor to stimulate contractions, and more oxytocin releases to strengthen contractions and help the mother bond with the infant. This hormone is further stimulated for milk ejection to help nourish newborns after birth when physical contact during breastfeeding causes oxytocin to be released.
However, researchers have found that the impacts of oxytocin are not limited to pregnancy, causing contractions, and breastfeeding. This hormone also increases the bond between parent and child during childbirth. Despite this, lower levels of oxytocin, manner of birthing, and adoption are not key aspects related to poorer bonds between child and caregiver.
Oxytocin And Bonding
Not only does oxytocin impact pregnancy, breastfeeding, and motherhood, but the hormone also influences human bonding and relationship building outside of family relationships, such as a sexual partner. While romantic attachment and sexual relationships have ties with oxytocin release, so do other human interactions.
There are some existing misconceptions which still exist regarding the release of oxytocin. For example, while the "love hormone" impacts how people socialize and interact with others, it does not force people to forge relationships or connections against their will. For instance, an individual may have oxytocin when meeting someone, but they won't bond if they don't feel willing.
Recent studies have explored the effectiveness of synthetic oxytocin delivered as a nasal spray to improve social cognition for persons with autism spectrum disorder. Some evidence suggests that intranasal administration enables oxytocin to enter the brain directly, bypassing the blood brain barrier.
Oxytocin And Stress
The plethora of adverse impacts associated with stress is well documented. Not only is stress connected with several leading causes of death, but it also adversely affects relationships, work, and other areas of a person's daily life. Oxytocin may alleviate some of these symptoms.
According to one study, prairie voles who experienced feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression felt the preceding emotion subside after being injected with oxytocin. During a 2007 meeting at the Society for Neuroscience, specialists determined that the positive impacts of oxytocin became more apparent when the subjects at hand were experiencing negative feelings of anxiety, unrest, or stress.
Is There A Negative Side To Oxytocin?
Elevated levels have been associated with benign prostatic hyperplasia, or enlarged prostate, which affects more than half of individuals assigned male at birth over 60 years of age. Too much oxytocin is also connected to an increase in aggression. As one study showed, high amounts of oxytocin can be linked to abuse and violence in relationships.*
In essence, oxytocin encourages or magnifies tendencies to become violent or connect healthily with others. For example, many parents feel the innate instinct to bond with their offspring, particularly after giving birth. The "love hormone" promotes bonding, love, romantic/sexual feelings, and other human interactions. However, if someone already tends to act aggressively or violently toward others, oxytocin can increase their propensity for this harmful behavior.
People who mistreat others may employ various excuses to explain away and justify their ill conduct. Oxytocin levels are not an excuse for domestic violence or abuse. *If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat.
A Conclusion On Oxytocin
Oxytocin is one of many hormones which can directly impact the human body and psyche. Love and bonding are complex and intricate facets of the lives of many. As more and more studies are conducted to explore the effects of oxytocin, there may be new developments and revelations.
Regardless of one's oxytocin level and hormonal impacts, each person can inevitably experience life's unique ups and downs. Life can be full of joyous times and challenging obstacles. While oxytocin can sometimes combat stress, depressive symptoms, and boost the propensity for positive human interactions such as friendships, romantic relationships, and overall socialization with others, it can be critical for each person to understand that oxytocin may only go so far.
You're not alone if you're experiencing challenges related to connecting with others, parenting, love, or unhealthy relationships. You may benefit from contacting a therapist for further support. For example, many people sign up for online platforms like BetterHelp, which can allow you to match with a therapist suited to your unique needs.
Humans are wired for connection, and having someone to turn to in times of distress can be valuable. While there may not be anyone you feel you can open up to in your everyday life, a certified online therapist may be able to provide you with a safe space to be transparent. Receiving care from the comfort of your home may allow you to move past anxiety, depression, or any other mental health concerns you might be facing.
Online therapy can be a viable treatment option for those struggling with mental health conditions like anxiety, PTSD, depression, and other mental health conditions. One study assessed the effectiveness of an online therapeutic intervention for treating post-partum depression in women who had recently given birth. Researchers found that those participating in the online intervention had reduced scores in symptoms of anxiety. They also scored "significantly lower" on the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) and experienced fewer post-partum depression symptoms as compared to the control group.
What does oxytocin do when abused?
Oxytocin abuse is unlikely. A synthetic form of oxytocin, called Pitocin®, is sometimes used intravenously in medical settings to induce labor, however, there is no medical concern over synthetic oxytocin abuse as it is not a controlled substance. On the contrary, oxytocin medications may help people overcome substance use disorders. For example, oxytocin may inhibit the development of drug tolerance and withdrawal symptoms.
The word “oxytocin” is sometimes confused with “OxyContin.” Though these terms sound similar, they are not synonymous. Oxytocin is a hormone, whereas OxyContin® is a brand name for long-acting opioid analgesics. Though OxyContin and other opioid analgesics, like rapid-release oxycodone, can be used for legitimate medical purposes to manage severe pain, they carry a high risk for drug misuse. When it first came to market, OxyContin was heavily prescribed and priced considerably lower than heroin (a drug that produces a similar euphoric high). OxyContin was recognized as the “poor man’s heroin,” as people could receive health insurance coverage for the opioid. OxyContin considerably worsened the ongoing opioid crisis across the United States, especially in states like West Virginia and New Hampshire.
OxyContin abusers may go “doctor-shopping” for healthcare providers who are willing to prescribe opioids, and misuse of the medication can significantly increase the risk of overdose. The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) was established to help public health professionals track substance-related emergency department visits, such as those resulting from the abuse of OxyContin or OxyContin overdoses. From DAWN information, researchers have found that from 1997 to 2002, the number of drug misuse-related deaths from OxyContin rose by 727.8%, shortly after it was approved by the FDA in 1995.
Can oxytocin be addictive?
Oxytocin impacts reward, memory, and stress responses in the brain, which are known contributors to the development of addiction. Because oxytocin produces a pleasurable sensation, it could contribute to people seeking out behaviors and substances that trigger oxytocin release. However, oxytocin is not a controlled substance, meaning it possesses no known risk of abuse, addiction, withdrawal, or dependence.
Oxytocin can be naturally increased with things like exercise, music listening, and physical touch. When someone consumes alcohol, oxytocin levels may increase, which contributes to increased social bonding while intoxicated. However, alcohol abuse may lead to reduced oxytocin production, which could contribute to the development of depression and other mental illnesses. Researchers have found that oxytocin can help treat alcohol use disorder by blocking the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmitter, which interferes with the intoxicating effects of alcohol.
Overall, research on the role of oxytocin in addiction is still in the early stages, but it appears to play a more complex role than simply being the “love hormone” many people know.
What happens if you have too much oxytocin?
Too much oxytocin may cause the development of benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH) in people with prostate glands. BPH is common in older men, and it can cause difficulty urinating. According to a paper reported by the National Institute of Health, high levels of oxytocin are also more common in people with severe social anxiety symptoms.
Low levels of oxytocin, on the other hand, may impact childbirth, breastmilk let-down reflex, and depression risk.
What makes oxytocin so addictive?
Naturally occurring compounds including oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, and vasopressin are involved in the development of trust, pleasure, love, and biological rewards for bonding with a sexual partner. Though oxytocin is an endogenous (produced inside the body) compound, its rewarding effects can be relatively similar to the addictive qualities of exogenous substances like alcohol and opioids. Some scientists have argued that the “love hormone” may make sexual compulsions and extreme love interests behaviorally comparable to a substance addiction.
How does oxytocin affect men?
Oxytocin is frequently associated with female childbirth, breastmilk let-down, and maternal-infant bonding. However, men experience an increase in oxytocin too, such as after ejaculation and during intercourse. People of any gender often describe experiencing a warm and fuzzy relaxed feeling and reduced anxiety when their oxytocin levels are high.
Oxytocin has the potential to enhance relationships by increasing trust, eye-gazing, empathy, bonding, commitment, and positive communication.
Is oxytocin toxic in relationships?
Oxytocin is considered helpful for the formation of strong bonds and intimacy, however, it may sometimes be harmful. For example, one study found that oxytocin can act as a sort of “crisis hormone” when people notice their partner becoming less invested in the relationship than them. This could potentially increase someone’s commitment to an unhealthy relationship.
In some cases, heightened oxytocin levels could lead to stalking or aggressive behaviors. One study found that people prone to physical aggression said they were more likely to engage in intimate partner violence after they were given oxytocin.
Does oxytocin cause hypersexuality?
People with hypersexual disorder tend to have higher oxytocin levels compared with people who do not exhibit compulsive sexual behaviors. According to one Swedish study, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) effectively reduced both oxytocin levels and hypersexuality in men with compulsive sexual behaviors.
Does oxytocin make you turned on?
Oxytocin is nicknamed the “love hormone” because it can increase bonding and affection. When oxytocin levels increase, people often experience higher libido (sex drive), and more orgasms. Overall, oxytocin can contribute to feeling “turned on” and reduce the occurrence of sexual dysfunction.
Is oxytocin the happy drug?
Oxytocin is a hormone that’s produced in the hypothalamus to support childbirth, bonding between mother and newborn, and physical and emotional intimacy between sexual partners. It’s often called the “cuddle hormone” or “love hormone” for these reasons.
What does oxytocin high feel like?
Oxytocin release is typically associated with a warm and fuzzy sensation, where stress and anxiety are low and connectedness with others increases. Though it’s commonly associated with sexual intimacy and falling in love, oxytocin release is not limited to romantic partners. For example, oxytocin contributes to the bonding parents experience with their newborns, and the hormone is released when you hug your friends or family. Oxytocin can also contribute the the relaxing sensation many people experience during a massage or haircut.
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