What Is The Role Of Oxytocin In Men?
Updated February 17, 2020
Reviewer Jeffrey Craven , MA, LMHC, LPCC, LLC
If you're a man and you've ever had the feeling after meeting a girl that she may, in fact, be the one, that's the oxytocin talking. Oxytocin is responsible for causing us to feel love, whether it's love from a mother for her child, or love between partners in an intimate relationship.
Oxytocin And Monogamy
According to an article published in TIME magazine a few years back, a study was conducted and subsequently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which showed that men are fueled by oxytocin when they are feeling love for their wives or girlfriends. Because the men being studied did not exhibit a similar reaction when they were showed pictures of strangers, no matter how pretty, this lead the researchers to conclude that oxytocin may be responsible for making men monogamous.
This was incredibly interesting to the researchers, as it has long been an unsolved mystery as to why monogamy even exists. Only three percent of the world's mammals are monogamous, so what makes this three percent so different?
Dr. Rene Hurlemann, the lead author of the study, stated that monogamy may not be such a good thing for males, and in fact, it doesn't really make sense. The culprit seems to be oxytocin. Sex makes more sense when a male can copulate with as many females as possible to spread his seed and create as many offspring as he can, so what is it that even makes monogamy a thing?
More studies need to be conducted, but suffice it to say that oxytocin appears to play a clear role in what causes us to stick around with that one partner we choose.
Oxytocin In Mothers
Studies have shown that mothers who have higher levels of oxytocin are able to form stronger bonds with their babies. This is perhaps less surprising when you consider that the oxytocin target organ is the uterus and mammary glands. What this means is that oxytocin is responsible for beginning a pregnant woman's uterine contractions when she goes into labor. It is also responsible for the contraction of the mother's mammary glands to promote the secretion of milk from her breasts.
In one study in particular, over 60 women had their oxytocin levels measured during their first and third trimesters, and were then observed interacting with their babies during the first month after delivery. When it came to oxytocin, pregnancy was certainly influenced, as was the mothers' interactions with their children after birth.
Moms who had higher levels of oxytocin during the first trimester were more attentive to their babies and bonded with them better. Further, higher levels of oxytocin in women throughout their entire pregnancy paid off in the long run as well, with these moms doting on their children more insofar as checking on their babies, worrying about them more, and even singing to them.
Prolactin vs. Oxytocin
Prolactin and oxytocin are hormones that both play an important role in childrearing. Prolactin is the hormone responsible for making breastmilk. Interestingly, prolactin has some sort of effect on over 300 different processes in many different vertebrates. For instance, in fish, prolactin is believed to regulate the balance between water and salt.
In a mother, prolactin and oxytocin work together in that the prolactin makes the milk, and the oxytocin releases the milk from the breast by way of contracting the mother's mammary glands. It is by way of these two hormones working together that a baby can feed on his or her mother.
While the baby is feeding, the nerves in the breast tell the brain to release both oxytocin and prolactin in order to make more milk. Once the baby stops nursing and the brain stops receiving these signals, the prolactin will no longer be released, and milk production will cease.
Interestingly, when your prolactin levels are high, your estrogen levels are low. This is why women who are exclusively breastfeeding often don't see their periods return for several months after delivering the baby. Once a mother's period returns, she begins to make more estrogen again and less prolactin. This can lead to an overall reduction in her milk supply, or only a temporary reduction while she has her period.
Oxytocin And Autism
Interestingly, some trials that have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (a popular journal, it seems, for oxytocin-related studies) have shown that in children who are introduced to oxytocin, autism can improve. Specifically, children with autism who struggle with sociability may benefit from being treated with the hormone.
For those tested, oxytocin was introduced into the body in the form of a nasal spray. While some children did not display any improvement whatsoever, others did. This has led the researchers to believe that only a subset of those with autism will respond positively to treatment; which subset specifically is something the researchers are still trying to figure out.
Karen Parker, a co-leader of the study, noted that because there have been so many failed trials, the question then becomes whether the children who failed did so because they may have already had higher oxytocin baselines. It is an area of study that requires more research, as the results were promising enough to not abandon the study altogether. Any mark of improvement is worth being investigated further, especially if it can provide some families with relief from the struggles that often accompany autism.
Coping With Oxytocin Deficiency
Oxytocin deficiency is a common side effect of menopause in women. And, of course, oxytocin deficiency comes with its own set of side effects, including:
- A strong sweet tooth
- Muscle aches
- Sleep deprivation
- Sexual difficulties (difficulty achieving orgasm and/or less lubrication)
- Anxiety and/or irritability
Oxytocin And Sex
Oxytocin is a key player when it comes to sex. Oxytocin is famous for two things:
- Causing us to feel love for another person
- Causing contractions
While sex often involves one person showing his or her love for another, that topic was already covered here earlier. The focus now is going to instead be on the biological role that oxytocin plays in sexual relations, and that is contractions.
For a woman to achieve orgasm, her vaginal muscles need to contract. Vaginal contractions, just like the contractions in a woman's uterus and mammary glands, are stimulated by oxytocin. If there is not enough oxytocin present, then the vagina will have difficulty contracting, and the woman who owns the vagina will become incredibly frustrated that she cannot enjoy sex.
Not only that, but oxytocin also plays in role in other parts of a woman's sexual enjoyment: it stimulates blood flow to and lubrication of the vagina, and contributes to the woman's libido as well, or her desire to have sex in the first place.
If you suffer from any of these conditions, the good news is that there may be an easy fix that doesn't require you having to flit off for a blood test just yet to diagnose and treat your condition. The most natural way to increase your oxytocin levels is through foreplay. Simply spending more time touching your partner and connecting to him or her on an intimate level can do wonders for your oxytocin levels.
This does not mean that you have to strictly stick to the more obvious erogenous zones of genitals, breasts, and buttocks. You may find that you are significantly more stimulated in having your partner touch your collarbone, your neck, or your lower back. Don't rule anything out. Allow your partner to explore your body so you both can discover where your hot buttons are.
Massages are effective in this regard, as they allow both your partner to touch you and you to relax. You may also want to speak to your doctor about changing your diet in such a way as to promote a rise in oxytocin.
Oxytocin And Vasopressin In Dogs
We've covered every aspect of oxytocin's influence on the human body, so let's take a look at how it also affects dogs. Specifically, studies have shown that both vasopressin and oxytocin can determine how aggressive or friendly a dog can be. In a direct contrast to oxytocin, vasopressin is known to be the hormone responsible for aggression in humans. It has also recently been found to extend to dogs as well.
What's interesting is that despite the risks that aggressive behavior in dogs can pose, we still don't know a lot about why certain dogs are more aggressive than others. However, in a recent study led by Dr. Evan MacLean, a professor at the University of Arizona, Dr. MacLean set out to study just that. He and his colleagues observed how dogs who were prone to unprovoked fits of aggression responded to dogs that were docile and non-threatening, but were of similar body types and breeds.
What they found what that the aggressive dogs had higher levels of vasopressin. Service dogs, on the other hand, who were bred for their passivity, displayed higher levels of oxytocin. This gives us a better glimpse into the behavior of aggressive dogs that are otherwise unprovoked, which can establish a better argument for all dogs having an individual personality, rather than grouping together all dogs of an otherwise nonexistent "aggressive breed."
Do you suffer from an oxytocin deficiency? Are you interested in learning more about oxytocin and its effects on the body? Consider reaching out to one of our licensed professionals for more information.