What is Oxytocin and How Does it Help Combat Stress?
Oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone often referred to as the “love drug.” It’s released during intimate moments with a loved one (not just in a romantic sense) and has shown to offer many relationship-enhancing effects like increased trust, fidelity, communication, and bonding.
What is oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a hormone produced in the hypothalamus (a small section of the brain) and secreted into the blood by the pituitary gland. The amount of oxytocin secreted is dependent on the electrical activity of neurons within the hypothalamus and is released into the bloodstream when these cells are aroused. In the brain, oxytocin’s role is that of a chemical messenger, which is important in determining many human behaviors.
Oxytocin is often associated with love and reproduction- in females, it triggers labor and encourages the body to release breast milk. In males, it mobilizes sperm, increasing the chances of fertilizing an egg.
What are the benefits of oxytocin?
It may be surprising to learn that a chemical in our brains can affect the way we interact with others, but this is true. One study found that oxytocin modulates social behaviors, including:
- Human trust
- Sexual behavior
- Maternal care and pair-bonding
- Social memory and support
This study also found that oxytocin can downregulate stress responses like panic and anxiety. Studies like this have proven that oxytocin is one of the brain’s most effective neurotransmitter systems for psychotherapeutic intervention. It has shown that oxytocin is a promising system in the treatment of psychiatric illnesses like social phobias and postpartum depression.
And it’s not just those with mental health issues that benefit from the release of oxytocin. People with social spectrum conditions like autism can benefit from intranasal oxytocin (a spray inserted into the nose). One interesting study found that autistic patients who had received intranasal oxytocin were more trusting and better at reading social cues within that setting.
Does oxytocin bring about any negative effects?
While we have little influence over what hormones our brains produce, it’s interesting to note that oxytocin can influence the way we treat others. In social situations, oxytocin can encourage favoritism and prejudice, leading to the formation of cliques and even the favoritism of one child over another, which can be damaging.
Oxytocin affects our bonding with loved ones and has been linked to feelings of jealousy and envy, both of which are emotions that can go too far and lead to abusive, violent, or obsessive behavior in extreme circumstances.
How does oxytocin reduce stress?
- Lowers blood pressure and cortisol levels – Studies have seen oxytocin induce stress-reducing effects in the body, such as lowering blood pressure and cortisol levels.
- Helps increase pain tolerance.
- Helps us better relate to others and communicate so we feel less stressed in social situations. Studies have even found it to be beneficial in those with social anxiety.
- Mothers and babies in each other’s company experience less stress - and it’s not just biological mothers who benefit from the release of this hormone. One of the most telling studies discovered that oxytocin has a similar effect on foster and adoptive mothers.
Is there any way to boost my oxytocin levels?
There are several ways you may be able to boost your brain’s release of the love hormone. Here are some of those practices:
- Yoga: this well-known practice is known to boost mood, reduce stress and anxiety and encourage the body to “switch off” at night, resulting in a better night’s sleep. Yoga can also help relieve certain symptoms of mental health issues like schizophrenia. One particular study found that yoga showed a notable improvement in socio-occupational functioning and an increase in participants’ oxytocin levels.
- Cooking and eating with a loved one: this act of collaborating to create something delicious reinforces our bond. Plus, we get to eat something tasty afterward, which rewards our brains for spending time with someone we love.
Listening to or creating music: one study looked at the neurochemistry and social flow of singing. Here, four jazz vocalists were asked to sing together in two separate performances; one pre-composed and one improvised. Concentrations of participants’ oxytocin were measured before and after each performance to gauge levels of social engagement and arousal.
Unsurprisingly, the vocalists’ oxytocin levels were higher as they improvised the song as this practice calls for social trust and non-verbal communication. In other words, the vocalists connected with others in the room, leaving them with a feeling of emotional and creative satisfaction.
- Meditation: as with yoga, this practice can help relieve tension, stress, and anxiety, boosting the brain’s release of oxytocin.
- Orgasm: when you orgasm, whether that be alone or with a partner, your body releases oxytocin and dopamine, two of the best chemicals the body can offer to improve our mood. Oxytocin’s ability to increase pain tolerance may be one of the reasons why many report feeling decreased pain (such as less of a headache) following orgasm.
Spend time with your pets: studies have found that we release that same bonding hormone when we interact with our beloved furry friends as we do when we spend time with other people. Better still, dogs (and likely our other pets) also receive that boost of oxytocin, so it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
This can be a particularly good method for those with social anxiety and social difficulties such as autism, as spending time with pets can boost their oxytocin levels so they can better interact with humans. Since dogs also lower cortisol levels, spending time with your pup really could be the best medicine for a stressful day.
Oxytocin truly is a fascinating hormone that our brains naturally produce. Each individual’s oxytocin levels may differ depending on sex, mental health state, and social situation. But overall, it’s another part of the intricate system that keeps our bodies and minds feeling good, and finding healthy ways to boost it can help you better manage your stress levels.