Oxytocin: The Love Hormone
Oxytocin is a hormone and neurotransmitter, produced in the brain by the hypothalamus and released by the pituitary gland. It is perhaps best known for its involvement in childbirth and breastfeeding but its actions and potential benefits go far beyond the period of childbearing. It is controlled by a positive feedback loop where release of the hormone causes an action that stimulates further release. Oxytocin is also associated with empathy, trust, sexual activity, and relationship-building in both sexes. Because of this association, oxytocin is often referred to as the “love hormone.”
What does this mean for you? What are the benefits of higher levels of oxytocin and what are some ways you can increase your own level of oxytocin?
Perhaps the most common use of synthetic forms of oxytocin is during the labour process as a method of induction or augmentation as well as postpartum to prevent or treat excess bleeding. Oxytocin, both naturally occurring and synthetic, acts by stimulating uterine contractions necessary for dilation of the cervix and assisting in pushing the baby through the vaginal canal. Through these contractions, it also helps to expel the placenta after the delivery and closing off blood vessels in the uterine wall to control bleeding once the placenta is out. Oxytocin also increases production of prostaglandins which further increase the strength and frequency of contractions and the progress of labour.
During breastfeeding, oxytocin acts to promote ejection of the milk from the breast (milk-ejection reflex). Interestingly, the act of breastfeeding itself or any type of mother-infant bonding results in an increase in oxytocin production. In men, oxytocin plays a role in sperm movement and the production of testosterone.
While oxytocin is so important during the process of labour and delivery, it also has other functions and researchers are discovering more all the time. Oxytocin improves social interaction by increasing trust and generosity, increasing empathy, and decreasing the fear response, improves sexual health, improves mood by evoking feelings of contentment and trust and improving social anxiety, prevents neuroinflammation and thus protects neurons in the developing brain, and moderates appetite.
In addition to these effects that have been supported by human research, there are some suspected roles that have been indicated in animal research including assisting with drug addiction by potentially inhibiting the development of tolerance to drugs such as cocaine, opiates and alcohol, and reducing withdrawal symptoms. There is also some suggestion that oxytocin may be connected to metabolism and the gut as well as the cardiovascular system. Conversely, low oxytocin levels have been linked to autism and autism spectrum disorder. Oxytocin has also been proposed as a possible treatment for social phobia and postpartum depression.
Currently, synthetic oxytocin is only approved for a few uses, typically only labour induction/augmentation and prevention/management of postpartum hemorrhage. There appears to be some potential in a nasal spray that has been used in the majority of human studies so we will see how that translates to mainstream use in the coming years.
Even under ideal circumstances, synthetic oxytocin would still be needed as a tool both during labour (or to induce labour) and postpartum, but there are some ways that you can optimize the amount of oxytocin produced and thus be more likely to both go into labour and have a normal, progressive labour. These include sexual activity as well as cuddling, touching, and falling in love. Interestingly, soothing music, positive social encounters, eating with a group of close friends/family, warm showers/temperatures, yoga, massage, exercise, and petting dogs (and other animals) can all increase oxytocin release. Limited human trials suggest that the scent of both jasmine and lavender could potentially increase oxytocin resulting in trust and relaxation.
Some nutrients that could potentially increase oxytocin release and function are magnesium, which is required for oxytocin to function, and vitamin D which binds to the genes that produce the oxytocin receptor and an oxytocin precursor. Some studies have suggested that vitamin D deficiency may increase a baby’s likelihood of developing autism due to a lack of oxytocin. Some early animal studies have indicated that some strains of probiotics may increase oxytocin release as well as caffeine.
Oxytocin is a complex hormone and we are just beginning to understand its effects and the implications of low circulating amounts. What we do know is that birth typically progresses better when undisturbed and when women are surrounded by loving support people, and that our lives are richer, fuller and healthier when they include a community of family and friends who we regularly spend time with, who we touch, and who we love.