What Is The Role Of Oxytocin In Men?

By Michael Arangua|Updated August 2, 2022

Content Warning: Please be advised, the article below might mention topics that include prescription medication, abuse of medication, and addiction. The information found in the article is not a substitute for professional medical advice or online therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified wellness professionals with any questions and before taking any supplement or medication.

If you've ever had the feeling as a man that someone is 'the one', that could be the hormone oxytocin giving you bonding cues. Oxytocin is a hormone that is partially responsible for causing us to feel love, whether love from a mother for her child or love as a romantic attachment between partners in an intimate relationship- oxytocin is the love drug we all chase in our brains. However, there is more to oxytocin than this.

release oxytocin

How Is Oxytocin Affecting My Relationship?

Monogamy's Role: The Love Hormone

Oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone in the body. Many peer reviewed studies examine the role of oxytocin and its ability to enhance pair bonding in couples. Sometimes nicknamed “the love hormone” or “the cuddle drug,” research indicates that oxytocin may play a role in:

  • Romantic attachment
  • Sexual activity and desire
  • Social interaction and social behavior
  • Trust
  • Empathy
  • Stress
  • Anxiety

While this is by no means an extensive list, oxytocin - among other hormones - has an important function in pair bonding and many other aspects of social interaction. For example, the hormone melatonin is known for the role it plays in regulating sleep cycles. The human body and human experience are so deeply multifaceted and varying among individuals that it’s inaccurate to chalk it all up to one factor or one hormone for most things in life. Additionally, it’s crucial to note that oxytocin exists in people of all genders, not just men, and it is present in many types of human interactions besides a man’s relationship with his female partner. With that in mind, let’s take a deeper look at the role of oxytocin.

How Oxytocin Is Produced In The Body

Oxytocin is formed in the part of the brain called the hypothalamus, a structure that maintains the balance of bodily functions. It then is released into the blood via the pituitary gland and travels to other parts of the body, depending on what its purpose is at that moment. Oxytocin is not only a hormone. It also acts as a neurotransmitter, linking to specialized oxytocin receptor sites.

Oxytocin’s main purpose is modulating social behavior. Women usually have higher levels of this hormone than men. The release of oxytocin into the bloodstream is stimulated by contact with other human beings and even with other species. For example, lovingly petting a dog or cat can stimulate its production. In addition, listening to music and exercising can increase levels of this hormone.

Oxytocin In Men

While oxytocin is released by the same triggers for everyone, in men, this hormone is noted for affecting behavior somewhat differently than in women. For example, it heightens a man’s ability to sense competitive relationships, while it does not appear to have this effect in women. By contrast, in women it stimulates feelings of kinship and caring. Researchers think this is because of differences in male and female amygdala structures, a brain area connected to emotional processing. In addition, these same researchers noted that it does not appear that this hormone is directly involved in feeling relaxed or in psychological stability. It appears that oxytocin’s effect is dependent on a person’s existing mood and what is going on in their environment. Nonetheless, anyone can raise their oxytocin levels by engaging in prosocial behaviors and having positive communication with others.

However, there are no foods or OTC medicines that can raise levels of this hormone. In some cases, doctors can prescribe intranasal oxytocin medication for people with certain psychological conditions. However, intranasal administration has mostly been used in research studies and is not currently widely used outside of that context.

Other Hormones Tied To Love And Attraction

First and foremost, despite being nicknamed “the love hormone,” oxytocin isn’t the only hormone that’s affiliated with love and attraction. Oxytocin increases in your body when you’re attracted to someone, and so do both serotonin and dopamine. It’s no secret that love feels good, and so, it makes sense that researchers have studied and continue to study the topic of oxytocin and its effect on social behaviors extensively.

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 a connection between the desire and pleasure regions in the brain and oxytocin. More specifically, when the individuals included in the study received oxytocin in the form of an intranasal oxytocin spray, these regions in the brain lit up when they looked at their romantic partner, but not when they looked at photos of people they did not know, such as attractive female strangers. There’s also a relatively well-known link between oxytocin and social behavior. More studies need to be conducted, but suffice it to say that, with what we know now, oxytocin appears to play a clear role in what causes us to stick around and form close social bonds with that one romantic partner we choose.

Oxytocin And Stress: Both Mental And Physical

Stress can be mental and physical. Both types of stress can impact your physical body as well as your mind and mental health. It is possible to stress your body physically just as much as it is possible to feel stress emotionally and psychologically. One thing that we know about stress is that, in small doses, it’s productive. Ongoing or prolonged stress, however, has serious health consequences. Research shows that oxytocin has the potential to promote anti-stress effects that are both mental and physical. The literature says that the release of oxytocin during stressful situations is affiliated with lower blood pressure readings, an increased threshold for pain, a lower heart rate, and lower cortisol levels.

Oxytocin In Birthing People: Stronger Bonds

Studies have shown that birthing people who have higher oxytocin levels can form stronger bonds with their babies. This is perhaps less surprising when considering that the oxytocin target organ is the uterus and mammary glands. This means that oxytocin is responsible for beginning a pregnant individual's uterine contractions when they go into labor. It is also responsible for the contraction of the person's mammary glands to promote the secretion of milk from their breasts, which is an important factor in mother infant bonding.

In one study, over 60 birthing people had their oxytocin levels measured during their first and third trimesters. They were then observed interacting with their babies during the first month after delivery. Pregnancy was certainly influenced when it came to oxytocin, as were the parents' interactions with their children after birth.

Birthing people who had higher oxytocin levels during the first trimester were more attentive to their babies and bonded with them better. Further, higher levels of oxytocin in people throughout their entire pregnancy paid off in the long run as well, enhancing positive communication. For example, these parents were more likely to dote on their children more insofar as checking on their babies, worrying about them more, and even singing to them.

The effects of oxytocin have also been observed in foster parents. For example, foster mother oxytocin production increases during the crucial phase of foster mother infant bonding. Adoptive parents also show higher levels of oxytocin when they provide love and care for their adoptive children, and foster mothers oxytocin production can also increase with interaction with their foster care children.

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Prolactin vs. Oxytocin

Prolactin and oxytocin are hormones that both play an important role in child-rearing. Prolactin is the hormone responsible for making breast milk. Interestingly, prolactin has some 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.

For those who have given birth, prolactin and oxytocin work together. The prolactin makes the milk, and the oxytocin releases the milk from the breast by contracting the parent's mammary glands. It is by way of these two hormones working together that a baby can feed.

While the baby is feeding, the nerves in the breast tell the brain to release both oxytocin and prolactin 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, during the initial stages after birth, prolactin levels are high and estrogen levels are low. This is why those exclusively breastfeeding often don't see their periods return for several months after delivering the baby. Once an individual's period returns, they start to make more estrogen again and less prolactin. This can lead to an overall reduction in milk supply or only a temporary reduction while one has their period.

Coping With Oxytocin Deficiency

Low oxytocin is linked to several different conditions and disorders. Oxytocin deficiency is also a common side effect of menopause. 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 less lubrication)
  • Anxiety and irritability

Interestingly, studies on oxytocin and anxiety show that it can decrease or increase anxiety. Many different factors can contribute to things like anxiety and sleep disturbance or sleep disorders, so it’s important not to self-diagnose a deficiency of oxytocin or start taking an intranasal oxytocin supplement without speaking to your doctor.

Hormone Release During Sex

Have you ever wondered what happens in your body when you experience an orgasm? Oxytocin plays a central role in sexual activity and gratification. When you have an orgasm, the brain releases dopamine and oxytocin into your bloodstream. Interestingly, it’s not just about sexual contact. Oxytocin is also released when we engage in other displays of physical affection, including but not limited to hugs, kisses, or even hand-holding. Serotonin levels also increase in women, but not in men, when they feel love. So, perhaps you’ve noticed that you feel happier or experience a sense of comfort after holding someone’s hand or engaging in another form of physical touch. In that case, this is a strong biological reason as to why this might happen and it’s connected to the hormonal reward pathways in the brain.

The Dark Side Of Oxytocin

Some researchers have found that oxytocin levels are associated with some darker sides of human existence. For example, in one study, researchers concluded that oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism. Human ethnocentrism is one example of humans forming “in groups” and “out groups” for the purpose of solidifying their social ties to the group they belong to, while acting with hostility to people outside their group. Similarly, this hormone may also be involved when a person feels suspicion and jealousy. This oxytocin hypothesis concludes that it is incorrect to assume that oxytocin is only a positive love chemical. Instead, it appears that its effect on brain reward system responses is more complex and nuanced and oxytocin modulates social distancing as well as social bonding.

Oxytocin And Vasopressin In Dogs

We've covered many of the most major aspects 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 vasopressin and oxytocin can determine how aggressive or friendly a dog can be. In 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.

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How Is Oxytocin Affecting My Relationship?

Interestingly, 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 was that the aggressive dogs had higher levels of vasopressin. Service dogs, on the other hand, who were bred for their passivity, displayed higher oxytocin levels. 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."

What Do I Do If I Think My Hormone Levels Are Off?

Hormones can affect your physical and mental health. If you think that your hormone levels are off or believe that you may be experiencing concerns related to hormonal differences such as oxytocin deficiency, please talk with your doctor to determine the next step. It is crucial to speak with a medical provider to ensure that no serious health concerns or conditions are missed and to ensure adequate treatment if applicable.

Online Therapy And Oxytocin Release

The mind and body are complex. If you’re struggling with interpersonal relationships, stress, anxiety, or something else that’s on your mind, support from a licensed professional such as a therapist or counselor can help.  BetterHelp makes it easier and more affordable to get the support you need from a licensed counselor or therapist. Whether you see someone online or face-to-face, you deserve to get the support you need.

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