Often dubbed the ‘love hormone’, oxytocin is the powerful neurotransmitter behind the warm, fuzzy feeling we’re all familiar with. It forges a bond between mother and baby , sparks sexual chemistry between romantic lovers, and creates lasting ties between close friends.
We spoke to consultant psychiatrist Dr Tom Pennybacker, chief medical officer at My Online Therapy , psychosexual therapist and intimacy coach Duchess Iphie and Dr Deborah Lee, of Dr Fox Online Pharmacy , to find out more about how the love hormone works its magic: What is oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter – a chemical messaging agent. It’s ‘one of the body’s feel-good hormones that counteracts stress hormones , like cortisol,’ explains Dr Pennybacker, and is ‘produced by the hypothalamus, a small region at the base of the brain, before being secreted by the nearby pituitary gland’.
Oxytocin is often dubbed the love hormone or cuddle hormone because it’s stimulated by – and also facilitates – social bonding . ‘Levels rise when you experience the sensation of touch,’ explains Dr Lee. ‘Touching means any form of skin-to-skin contact – holding hands, stroking, cuddling, kissing, or having sexual intercourse.’
It also affects another part of the brain, the amygdala, which lessens fear and facilitates feelings of friendliness and trust, says Dr Lee. ‘Studies have shown that oxytocin release is associated with an increase in positive social behaviour, such as an increase in eye gazing, and an improved ability to judge facial expression and tone of voice,’ she says. When it comes to bonding, oxytocin works in conjunction with other feel-good hormones, such as dopamine and serotonin. However, it’s worth pointing out that oxytocin’s interaction with the amygdala differs between sexes. ‘Like many hormones, oxytocin seems to affect men and women differently,’ says Dr Pennybacker. ‘Some research suggests that oxytocin helps women identify potential friendships and, in contrast, men use it to identify competitive relationships.’
When it comes to bonding, oxytocin is no lone ranger. It works in conjunction with other feel-good hormones, such as dopamine (the ‘reward’ hormone) and serotonin (the ‘happy’ hormone). When you feel loving towards someone – or something – your brain releases a surge of dopamine, your serotonin levels peak, and oxytocin is produced. This trifecta of causes leads you to experience a surge of positive emotion.
Woman jumping for joy How does oxytocin make you feel?
Oxytocin makes us feel warm and loved. ‘You’ll know when oxytocin is at work when you feel a big swell of love in your chest, or you feel like you’re being surrounded with fuzzy feelings and positive vibes,’ says Ichie. ‘You feel more attached, more loving than usual. This feeling can be addictive.’
As well as making us feel close to our partners, ‘some studies suggest that it may even make us want to commit and form long-term bonds ,’ adds Dr Pennybacker. And that’s not all. The hormone also makes us feel reassured, safe and calm, and has ‘been linked to everything from pain relief to lower stress levels,’ he says.
Indeed, oxytocin is one of the body’s natural mechanisms to help lower stress , says Dr Lee. ‘It’s known to dampen down the sympathetic nervous system – this is the ‘fight or flight’ system that goes into overdrive when we feel anxious or threatened,’ she says. ‘Oxytocin stimulates the opposing parasympathetic nervous system to slow the heart and respiratory rate.’
Self care tips What triggers oxytocin release?
While it’s often referred to as the love hormone, oxytocin plays a key part in every relationship we have. ‘Any close bodily contact results in the release of oxytocin,’ says Dr Lee. ‘Large amounts of oxytocin are produced during childbirth , breastfeeding , and from the positive experiences when a mother cradles her baby.
It’s easy to underestimate the power of human touch, says Dr Pennybacker, ‘but we’re social beings and we’re designed to connect. Therefore it’s no surprise that, when we hug, cuddle or spoon a loved one, it releases oxytocin. Lots of research has shown that random acts of kindness can help us get a “helper’s high” and this can be put down to increased levels of oxytocin also.’
Dead end relationship Why is oxytocin called the love drug?
Oxytocin is most commonly associated with romantic love . Research shows that oxytocin is at its highest levels during the beginning stages of relationships , says Iphie. ‘That doesn’t mean it disappears the longer a relationship lasts – it just means that there’s a boost before evening out,’ she says.
The hormone is also released during sexual activity, and is even linked to the intensity of orgasms . In men and people with penises, oxytocin is a powerful vasodilator and therefore vital for erectile function, says Dr Lee. It also has a role in sperm transport, and may cause contractions within the prostate gland at the moment of ejaculation.
In women and people with vulvas, meanwhile, ‘it’s thought to cause uterine contractions at orgasm, which facilitate the deposition of sperm in the upper part of the genital tract,’ she adds. ‘The stronger the orgasm, the greater the levels of oxytocin. After orgasm, oxytocin contributes to feelings of warmth and sexual satisfaction.’ ‘Oxytocin is produced when you take part in any form of warm social interaction, such as a hug or petting a dog or cat.’ Oxytocin also encourages fidelity, because of the way it affects reward pathways in the brain, says Iphie. ‘If we are intimate with a regular, reliable monogamous partner then whoosh: more oxytocin. It’s a loop of behaviour we stay in.’ In that way, oxytocin ‘can strengthen relationships and improve sexual pleasure,’ she says.
‘If you put work in with your partner after the honeymoon period, you can have a great sex life and keep the oxytocin flowing,’ she continues. ‘Once you achieve this, you’re onto a winning cycle of closeness, oxytocin production and more closeness. I’m all for a beneficial cycle of communication, love and sex; boosting your oxytocin can increase your partner’s, and vice versa.’
In a […]