Recent studies suggest that humans are “hard-wired” to thrive as social animals. Non threatening physical contact (hugging in particular) leads to a natural reduction in stress and the production of happy chemistry that lasts several hours.
To summarize: touch lowers the output of cortisol, a stress hormone, and when cortisol dips there’s a surge of “feel good” brain chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.
What is Oxytocin?
Oxytocin in particular (a neurotransmitter that acts as a hormone) helps calm the body from stress, promote the growth of healthy tissue, aid in digestion, increase energy, overcome desires for addictive behaviors and that’s just the tip of its iceberg of benefits. Most importantly oxytocin tells the brain, “Everything is all right” and helps us navigate our world of complex social relationships by rewarding positive social behavior with feelings of contentment and relaxation. It motivates a variety of pro-social behaviors such as generosity, compassion, and forgiveness, and helps us to trust and bond with strangers.
10 Good Reasons Why You Want More Oxytocin
1. It’s easy to get
One of the neat things about oxytocin is that you can get your fix anywhere and at any time. All you need to do is simply hug someone or shake their hand. The simple act of bodily contact will cause your brain to release low levels of oxytocin — both in yourself and in the person you’re touching. It’s a near-instantaneous way to establish trust. And the good news is that the effect lingers afterward. There’s even evidence that simply gazing at someone will do the trick — or even just thinking about them. And you shouldn’t feel limited by the human species; it also helps to hug and play with your pets. And for those who can’t produce enough oxytocin on their own, or who feel they could use a boost, the molecule can be easily synthesized and administered as a drug.
2. A love potion that’s built right in
Often referred to as the “love molecule”, oxytocin is typically associated with helping couples establish a greater sense of intimacy and attachment. Oxytocin, along with dopamine and norepinephrine, are believed to be highly critical in human pair-bonding. But not only that, it also increases the desire for couples to gaze at one another, it creates sexual arousal, and it helps males maintain their erections. When you’re sexually aroused or excited, oxytocin levels increase in your brain significantly — a primary factor for bringing about an orgasm. And during the orgasm itself, the brain is flooded with oxytocin — a possible explanation for why (some) couples like to cuddle after.
3. It helps mom to be mom
But oxytocin isn’t just limited to helping couples come together — it’s an indispensable part of childbirth and mother-child bonding. Oxytocin helps women get through labour by stimulating uterine contractions, which is why it’s sometimes administered (as Pitocin) during labor. It’s been known to promote delivery and speed up contractions. After birth, mothers can establish intimacy and trust with their baby through gentle touches and even a loving gaze. In addition, mothers can pass on oxytocin to their babies through breast milk. And it’s worth noting that fathers can reap the benefits of oxytocin as well; new dads who are given a whiff of oxytocin nasal spray are more likely to encourage their children to explore during playtime and are less likely to be hostile.
4. Reduces social fears
Given its ability to break-down social barriers, induce feelings of optimism, increase self-esteem, and build trust, oxytocin is increasingly being seen as something that can help people overcome their social inhibitions and fears. Studies are showing that it may be effective in treating debilitating shyness, or to help people with social anxieties and mood disorders. It’s also thought that oxytocin could help people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. In addition, given that autism is essentially a social communication disorder, it’s being considered as a way of helping people on the spectrum as well. And lastly, oxytocin, through its trust-building actions, can help heal the wounds of a damaged relationship — another example of how the mind gets its plasticity.
5. Healing and pain relief
Amazingly, oxytocin can also be used to heal wounds (through its anti-inflammatory properties). Studies have also shown that a rise in oxytocin levels can relieve pain — everything from headaches, cramps and overall body aches. Now, that being said, the trick is to get some oxytocin action while you’re in pain — which is not so easy. This is where synthetics can certainly help. Alternately, if you find yourself in physical discomfort, you could always ask your partner for a roll in the hay. So guys, be sure to use this crucial information the next time your significant other declines your advances and tells you she has a headache.
6. A diet aid
Perhaps surprisingly, it can also be used to prevent obesity in some instances. Researchers have observed that oxytocin and oxytocin receptor-deficient mice become obese later in life — and with normal food intake. Scientists believe that the hormone might be responsible for a series of beneficial metabolic effects, both in mice and humans. Moreover, by giving oxytocin-deficient obese mice oxytocin infusions, their weight returned back to normal levels. The mice also showed a reduced glucose intolerance and insulin resistance. This clearly suggests an alternative option for those struggling to keep the weight off.
7. An antidepressant
Oxytocin was first observed to have a connection to depression through its effects on mothers suffering from postpartum syndrome. Researchers found that some new mothers were dealing with depression on account of low levels of oxytocin. In fact, they were able to predict postpartum during the pregnancy if the expectant mother had low levels of oxytocin. Recent studies of blood levels and genetic factors in depressed patients have revealed the potential for treating people with clinical depression, and even anxiety disorders.
8. Stress relief
Not surprisingly, given its ability to alleviate social anxiety and produce feelings of trust, oxytocin has the peripheral ability to reduce stress — which is no small thing when you consider the toll that stress takes on the body. Oxytocin has been observed to reduce cortisol in the body and lower blood pressure. It’s also been known to improve digestion, which is often disturbed by high stress levels. Interestingly, oxytocin and the oxytocin receptors have been found in the intestinal tract; it improves gut motility and decreases intestinal inflammation.
9. Increases generosity
In what could be seen as either a good or bad thing, oxytocin has been observed to increase generosity in humans. Evolutionary biologists, particularly those who subscribe to the selfish gene theory, have long struggled to understand why people sometimes share or give away things — often at a personal cost. But several lines of research have connected oxytocin to feelings of empathy. In one study that required persons to share money with a stranger, infusions of oxytocin were shown to make some subjects as much as 80% (wow!) more generous than those on a placebo.
10. It’s what makes us human
In other words, all the above. It’s clear that we really wouldn’t be human without it — we would simply lack the ability to be the social, caring species that we are. Now, it should be noted, however, that, while oxytocin increases in-group trust, it produces the opposite feeling for those in the out-group — so it’s not the “perfect drug” some might proclaim it to be. That being said, oxytocin plays a crucial role in forging our ability to spark and maintain relationships, while endowing us with the ability to empathize, trust, and even love one another. Without it, we would be something significantly less than what we are.
How to naturally create and benefit from Oxytocin?
How can we naturally create oxytocin and maximize its release in our own bodies? Oxytocin levels increase when we love, connect, and socialize with those around us. Try this:
1) Think about someone you love
If you want a deeper connection with your spouse, children, or parent simply thinking positive thoughts about that person can increase oxytocin levels in the blood and thereby decrease stress hormones.
Social stimulation naturally increases oxytocin levels. Some researchers suggest that oxytocin may have an “addictive” quality. In other words, the “high” humans receive from the release of oxytocin might trigger us to continue in social relationships.
Hugging and close contact with those you love is a natural way to increase oxytocin levels. Breastfeeding, rocking, or holding your children create healthy bonds, a feeling of connection, and lower stress hormones. Getting a massage or back rub, participating in yoga, or hugging and kissing your spouse or partner are additional ways you can naturally increase oxytocin levels. In a TED Talk, Dr. Zak prescribes at least 8 hugs per day to feel happier and more connected, as well as to nurture relationships. According to Zak, after only 20 seconds of hugging a romantic partner, one can achieve a spike in oxytocin levels, as well as a decrease in blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels. (Side note: hug seniors citizens! Older adults benefit most from touch. The older you are, the more fragile you are physically, so contact becomes increasingly important for good health.)
4) Soothing music
Playing relaxing music can increase oxytocin levels. Wilson, in the Journal of Clinical Nursing, found that those patients who listened to soothing music during rest or sleep after open heart surgery experienced increased oxytocin levels. Soothing music can elicit feelings of bonding and connection by creating a shared experience among individuals.
5) Own a pet
Research has shown pet owners tend to have lower stress levels. Lowered stress levels in pet owners might be as result of the protective factor against stress oxytocin produces. The boosts in oxytocin pet owners experience from the squeezes, licks, and hugs their cats and dogs freely offer is beneficial for both the owner and the pet.
Laughing makes you feel good. Laughter Yoga and Laughter Wellness in particular help create a strong bond and lots of empathy with strangers.[pl_blockquote cite=”Herman Melville”] “We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.”
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Mikolajczaka, M., Pinonb, N., Lanea, A., de Timaryc, P. & Lumineta, O. (2010). Oxytocin not only increases trust when money is at stake, but also when confidential information is in the balance. Biological Psychology, 85, 1, 182–184. Abstract.
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Wellsphere 2010: Release the Flow of Oxytocin for Emotional and Relationship Health
Zak P. J., Stanton, A. A. & Ahmadi, S. (2007) Oxytocin Increases Generosity in Humans. PLoS ONE 2(11): e1128. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001128
Zak, P. J. (2008). The Neurobiology of Trust. Scientific American.
Zak, P. J. (2011). Trust, Morality – and Oxytocin. TED Talk.