Have you ever wondered what causes humans to love? The feeling of love is mistakenly linked to the heart, so much so that it has even become the symbol of this emotion! We often talk about love in relation to the heart through phrases such as ‘a broken heart’, ‘the heart’s desire’ and ‘winning someone’s heart’; however, the emotion of love and the heart organ are only very loosely linked, in the same way that any organ could be related to love.
Love has more to do with oxytocin, which sounds much less romantic – but, hey, it’s biology!
What Is Oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a hormone and neurotransmitter that is produced by the hypothalamus (the part of the brain that links the nervous system to the endocrine system) and is released by the pituitary gland.
Its name is based on a blend of the Greek words for ‘swift’ and ‘childbirth’, which gives you a clue to one of its main functions: speeding up the process of childbirth. Oxytocin causes contractions during labour, which push the baby down towards the cervix and through the vagina. When the baby is born, however, the oxytocin continues to release in the mother’s body, allowing her to temporarily ‘forget’ about the pain of the labour and bond with her baby. In addition, the hormone facilitates lactation and continued bonding throughout childhood.
However, the connection between parenting and oxytocin is not limited to mothers and their biological children. A study revealed that the hormone also plays a role in bonding between foster parents and their infants.
Oxytocin is also linked to social bonding in adults, with higher levels of the hormone recorded in adults in new romantic relationships. One review found that oxytocin has enhancing effects on a number of key aspects in relationships, including trust, stress-reduction, empathy and fidelity.
With all this in mind, it’s no wonder why oxytocin has been dubbed the ‘love hormone’!
Oxytocin And The Positive Feedback Mechanism
The release of oxytocin is controlled by a positive feedback mechanism – a feedback loop that stimulates the production and release of more oxytocin when the hormone is initially released into the body.
For example, during sexual intercourse, oxytocin is released. This prompts further production and release of oxytocin until the triggering activity (sex) ceases. For some, this continues after sex, prompting the need for further interaction with their partner, such as cuddling.
Can You Increase Your Oxytocin Output?
Besides giving birth and starting a new relationship, there may be other ways to increase your oxytocin levels if you can’t get enough of this feel-good hormone.
Listen to your favourite music
It’s well known that music can evoke different emotions, which are intrinsically linked to hormones. One study revealed that patients who listened to soothing music during bed rest following open-heart surgery were found to have significantly increased oxytocin levels in comparison to those who did not listen to music. This was associated with increased relaxation levels, which are likely related to more successful recovery.
Get a massage
Many studies have suggested that physical touch stimulates oxytocin release, but one particular study found that just 15 minutes of massage can raise oxytocin levels. Meanwhile, it has also been found that giving or receiving a massage with your significant other improves physical and emotional wellbeing, regardless of prior training in massage.
If you’ve ever wondered why food makes you feel good, it may be because of its links to oxytocin release. This hormone is secreted when food touches the oral mucosa (the mucous membrane lining the inside of the mouth) and when the food reaches the gastrointestinal tract. This is followed by a ‘postprandial sedation’, which brings on a state of satisfaction and calmness, which often leads to an openness to social interaction and bonding.
Synthetic oxytocin is sometimes administered by doctors in full-term pregnant women to induce contractions during labour and to stop bleeding following childbirth. However, there are risks associated with its use, including excessive uterine contractions, which could affect the health of the baby. There is potential for treating psychiatric disorders such as autism and schizophrenia with oxytocin. Meanwhile, there is evidence of successful weight management through the use of intranasal oxytocin by reducing reward-driven food intake, with one study reporting a 25% reduction in the intake of chocolate cookies in its participants!
Oxytocin And You
The release of oxytocin in our bodies is a natural process, but everybody’s relationship with this hormone is unique. Some people have perfectly balanced hormone levels, while others may have issues that affect their endocrine system, and therefore their production of oxytocin.
It’s difficult to detect an oxytocin deficiency unless you give birth, after which point, if you have trouble lactating, this may point to a deficiency. However, a general hormone imbalance can lead to symptoms such as:
- Depression and anxiety
- Difficulty sleeping
- Irritability and mood swings
- Skin issues such as acne
- Weight gain
- Low libido
- Muscle weakness and joint pain
If you are struggling with poor general wellbeing, it’s important to book an appointment with your doctor or a hormone specialist, who will be able to run some tests to provide a diagnosis. It’s important to note that you should not self-diagnose, nor purchase hormone products from unlicensed and unregulated stores online or offline.