The Oxytocin Function Explained & What Does It Do?
By Sarah Fader
Updated February 25, 2020
Reviewer Richard Jackson
The human body is an extremely complex machine. Along with our organs, muscles, and bones, approximately 50 different hormones are contributing to our health and moods. Among these influential hormones is oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the "love hormone," or "cuddle hormone." But, the function of oxytocin extends much further than facilitating feelings of love or intimacy.
What Is Oxytocin?
Love may be oxytocin's claim to fame, but the hormone has a much greater role in the body and health. In addition to its hormonal functions, oxytocin also acts as a neurotransmitter. Both hormones and neurotransmitters serve as the body's chemical messengers and are responsible for facilitating communication between different neurons and muscles. The main difference between hormones and neurotransmitters is the bodily system in which they operate.
Neurotransmitters are used by the nervous system (which includes the brain and spinal cord), while hormones influence the endocrine system. However, there is some overlap between the two, and some molecules can act as both a hormone and neurotransmitter. Oxytocin is one of these dual-functioning molecules, as is norepinephrine.
Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus region of the brain. The hypothalamus is an extremely important area of the brain, as it is responsible for keeping the body in a state of homeostasis. Oxytocin is secreted by the hypothalamus when the neurons in that region of the brain give off electrical activity. When the hypothalamus produces oxytocin, it sends the oxytocin down to the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland (sometimes referred to as the "master gland"). From there, the pituitary gland releases oxytocin directly into the bloodstream.
A positive feedback mechanism controls the amount of oxytocin that gets released by the hypothalamus, meaning that an initial release of the hormone sparks an action that stimulates even more of the hormone to be released.
The Oxytocin Function Explained
Oxytocin has multiple functions in the human body, both physical and psychological.
Oxytocin And Reproduction
While all humans use oxytocin, it is particularly important for females due to its role in reproduction. In general, women tend to have higher levels of oxytocin in the body than men. This is especially true when a woman is pregnant or has recently given birth. Oxytocin is a strong stimulant of uterine contractions and is responsible for initiating labor contractions.
After childbirth, oxytocin levels remain high. The hormone is released, along with prolactin, during breastfeeding. Oxytocin is responsible for facilitating the flow of lactation. It is hard to produce oxytocin when feeling anxious or embarrassed, which is one of the reasons why some women may need to go to a private, comfortable place to breastfeed.
Oxytocin remains a prominent component of a woman's health and emotions following childbirth. The hormone helps shrink the uterus back to its normal size in the days following labor, playing a crucial role in the physical mechanism of childbirth and post-labor health. Childbirth can have a lasting effect on women's' oxytocin production, causing them to experience a spike in the hormone from hearing a baby cry or even just thinking about their baby.
Oxytocin And Bonding
Another way in which oxytocin plays a role in reproduction is that it can intensity mother-child bonding. And, the relationship between oxytocin and mother-child bonding starts long before actual childbirth. According to research, a mother's oxytocin levels during the first trimester of pregnancy can later influence bonding behaviors with her newborn baby.
Oxytocin also helps facilitate bonding between fathers and their children. While men do not receive the same natural boost of oxytocin as women when their partners give birth, they can receive supplemental oxytocin. In studies, men who supplemented oxytocin showed increased levels of bonding with their child compared to men who did not receive supplemental oxytocin.
Beyond parent-child bonding, oxytocin has been shown to strengthen romantic relationships. One study examined how men responded to photos of their partner or photos of other women whom they had never met. Some of the men were given nasal oxytocin spray, while others were given a placebo nasal spray that did not contain any oxytocin.
Researchers found that when men were given a boost of oxytocin via the spray, the areas of their brain associated with reward and pleasure lit up upon seeing photos of their partner. At the same time, seeing photos of the other women suppressed feelings of pleasure. Psychiatrists believe that this suggests oxytocin can increase the likelihood of a successful monogamous relationship, as it is indicative of pleasure and rewards for having one long-term partner.
Oxytocin And Intimacy
The study mentioned above also demonstrates the relationship between intimacy and oxytocin. Sexual intimacy is one of the triggers for the body to release oxytocin, and people tend to have higher levels of oxytocin in their body when they are in a relationship versus when they are single.
This is especially true during the early stages of a romantic relationship. The rush of oxytocin that people experience at the beginning of a relationship may form linkages between the oxytocin response and simple actions like a partner speaking or facial cues. Then, as time goes on and the relationship becomes less intimate, simple things like looking into the partner's eyes may spark a rush of oxytocin thanks to the linkages formed early in the relationship.
According to one psychiatrist, this suggests that oxytocin can help prevent emotional distance that may arise over the course of a long-term romantic relationship. Even if someone does not feel a rush of closeness upon looking into their partner's eyes, supplementing with a nasal oxytocin spray could potentially help strengthen the relationship and bring back some feelings of intimacy.
There is a strong association between oxytocin and intimacy outside of monogamous relationships, too. This is the reason oxytocin has gained the moniker of the "love hormone." When you engage in sex, oxytocin, along with dopamine, are released in the brain. This can make you feel closer to your partner. In animal studies, oxytocin has also shown to increase sexual arousal. This is an example of the positive feedback mechanism of oxytocin production. Oxytocin can cause sexual arousal, and then sexual intercourse produces more oxytocin, restarting the positive feedback loop.
But, sex is not the only way to get a hit of oxytocin. Even a short hug can produce feelings of closeness and cause a release of the hormone. This means oxytocin can help you feel closer to people in a non-romantic way and can strengthen friendships and romantic partnerships alike.
Oxytocin And Your Emotions
Along with physical and sexual health, oxytocin can play a role in your emotional health. Some research has found that oxytocin influences "pro-social behaviors" and can contribute to relaxation and trust, as well as psychological stability. Oxytocin is regarded as very important for helping the body adapt to highly emotional situations and can reduce stress responses such as anxiety.
Other studies have found that oxytocin improves self-perception in social situations. This means that it can help people feel more confident and outgoing around others. These findings, coupled with oxytocin's ability to reduce stress responses, indicates that oxytocin may be useful for helping people overcome social anxieties or other anxiety disorders. Of course, treating anxiety or other emotional disorders is not a one-size-fits-all solution.
For most people, treating these conditions involves a variety of methods, which may include medication, and usually therapy. Therapy and counseling, either online or in-person, is a great choice for anyone struggling with emotional or anxiety disorders that they would like to learn how to manage better.
In addition to social anxiety, autism and postpartum depression may also be effectively treated with oxytocin. Because it is associated with feelings of trust, it can be useful for people who avoid socializing with others and help make them feel more comfortable in social situations. Scientists also believe that oxytocin could help improve both interpersonal and individual well-being.
Some people may feel that they would like to start supplementing their body's natural production of oxytocin to increase intimacy with their partner, boost their mood, reduce anxiety or stress, or a multitude of other reasons. While oxytocin can help many people with these problems, you should always discuss any supplements with a doctor and mental health professional before you start taking it. Not only is it important to seek their advice about whether or not oxytocin supplementation can help you, but you should also inquire about dosage and what form of the supplement they recommend.
In the scientific studies previously mentioned, participants were given oxytocin via nasal spray. This is a common way to supplement oxytocin because the intranasal administration allows the oxytocin to hit the bloodstream faster than some other methods. You can also use an oxytocin body spray that you spritz around your neck and collar area, or even onto pillows or blankets.
Alternatively, your doctor may recommend taking oxytocin in pill form. Pitocin is a brand of oxytocin pills that is most commonly prescribed to pregnant women. The pill is used to help stimulate labor, as oxytocin is a strong stimulant of uterine contractions.
Oxytocin has many benefits for emotional and physical health, but that does not mean one should overload their body with supplemented oxytocin. Most people produce a sufficient amount of oxytocin on their own, without any additional oxytocin from a spray or pill. For some of the conditions oxytocin treats, like stress and anxiety, a better option may be to talk to a therapist or counselor.
Just because you do not take an oxytocin supplement does not mean that the hormone and neurotransmitter are not affecting your life. The next time you embrace your partner or friend in a long hug and feel a rush of happiness and comfort, remember that you are experiencing oxytocin at work.