Oxytocin has long been considered a woman's hormone. Nowadays most people know it as a cuddle hormone. But even the term "cuddle hormone" is an understatement. Scientists even see oxytocin as having the potential to serve as an accompanying therapy for various mental illnesses. We'll tell you why oxytocin is really important for everyone and how you can successfully lower your stress level.
What does oxytocin do?
Oxytocin translated from ancient Greek means something like "quick birth". The best-known functions of oxytocin are namely induction of labor and milk secretion during breastfeeding. In addition, oxytocin has a stress- and anxiety-relieving, calming, prosocial and pain-relieving effect.
Oxytocin works through the oxytocin receptors. When the oxytocin binds to the receptor, a special reaction takes place in the cell that carries the receptor. This reaction can differ from cell type to cell type, since the receptor binding sets a cell-typical mechanism in motion. The more receptors a tissue has, the stronger the effect of oxytocin. Therefore, it is not only the concentration of oxytocin that matters, but also the concentration of the receptors.
Where does the reputation as a woman's hormone come from?
The effects of oxytocin on childbirth and breastfeeding were first known. For a long time, oxytocin was restricted to these functions and therefore dismissed as a woman's hormone. Scientists now agree that oxytocin also strengthens human bonds. And not just those between mother and child, but every imaginable one.
Oxytocin promotes the contraction of smooth muscles. In contrast to the skeletal muscles, the smooth muscles are not consciously controlled. For example, the smooth muscles of the uterus, the mammary glands and the blood vessels are under the influence of oxytocin. Oxytocin induces labor by contracting the uterine muscles. When breastfeeding, oxytocin releases breast milk from the mammary glands by causing the mammary gland muscles to contract.
The widening of blood vessels by oxytocin leads to increased heat dissipation to the child during breastfeeding. Together with physical contact, this in turn increases the child's release of oxytocin. Such effects also occur within other relationships. In addition, oxytocin acts not only as a hormone, but also as a neurotransmitter in the brain. Therefore, the functions of oxytocin are much more diverse and the designation of oxytocin as a woman's hormone has long been considered obsolete.
However, the effect of oxytocin on reproduction begins with fertilization. For example, the contractions of the uterine muscles during an orgasm promote the transport of the sperm to the egg cell. In addition, oxytocin is said to be involved in the need for physical closeness.
How does oxytocin affect interpersonal relationships?
Oxytocin increases the ability to empathize and binds people emotionally to one another. This is what oxytocin does in its function as a neurotransmitter. The limbic system is a part of your brain that is responsible for emotions and social bonds. Oxytocin also works in this area.
Oxytocin also increases trust between people. But only among friends. Oxytocin tends to reduce confidence in strangers. Several scientific studies came to the result.1, 2, 3 However, it should not be concluded from this that oxytocin can actively cause aggressive behavior. It only leads to defending one's own group. In the same way that mother animals protect their young at all costs.
Oxytocin and partnership - studies with voles provided initial findings
The potential of oxytocin on social behavior is illustrated by a groundbreaking study on voles that sparked the increased interest in oxytocin research in the first place.4
Prairie voles live in a monogamous partnership and share the rearing of their offspring. Mountain voles, on the other hand, are solitary animals that only unite to mate. The female mountain voles raise the offspring alone. The distribution of oxytocin receptors in the brains of these two vole species is remarkable. The limbic system of the brain in the monogamous prairie voles has significantly more oxytocin receptors than in the mountain voles.
Also very informative was the finding that the oxytocin receptor distribution in the brain of the female mountain vole changes after giving birth. The oxytocin receptor density in the limbic system of the female mountain voles increased during the time of rearing. When researchers give the mountain voles oxytocin independently, the mountain vole's social behavior resembles that of a monogamous vole. Oxytocin therefore decides in voles how much they are attached to their partner and how they behave towards their offspring.5
Why does oxytocin relieve stress?
According to researchers, oxytocin lowers stress levels by increasing the concentration of the stress hormone in oxytocin Cortisol reduced.6, 7 In this respect, oxytocin reverses the harmful effects of cortisol. The blood pressure drops, you can sleep better and you feel more balanced.
How does oxytocin relieve anxiety?
At least in animal experiments there is clear evidence that oxytocin triggers fear when the oxytocin secretion in the brain is increased.8 According to the researchers, the anxiety-relieving effect is due to the activation of nerve cells, which then release the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Thus, oxytocin clearly acts as a neurotransmitter. Because this happens through direct communication between nerve cells without going through the bloodstream.
Why does oxytocin relieve pain?
Obviously, a pain reliever effect from oxytocin is very beneficial for women in labor. However, that may not be the only point in oxytocin's pain relieving effects. Because patients with chronic back pain have an increased oxytocin concentration in their cerebrospinal fluid. In doing so, the body is probably trying to compensate for the pain.9
In other studies, oxytocin injections helped with cancer-related pain even where other drugs such as opiates were no longer sufficient.5, 10 In this way, oxytocin shows once again that it is much more than just a woman or cuddle hormone.
What is oxytocin important for?
The organs for which oxytocin is important can be determined quite simply from the distribution of the oxytocin receptors. The cells in the following tissues in particular have oxytocin receptors:
- female and male genital organs
- Muscles of the mammary glands
- Cardiovascular system
- Adipose tissue
How is oxytocin made?
Oxytocin is released in response to certain stimuli. During childbirth, breastfeeding and during Sex stimulation of the vagina, uterus and nipples triggers the increased release of oxytocin. In men, sex also leads to an increased release of oxytocin.
In addition, every form of pleasant skin contact and soothing warmth stimulates the release of oxytocin. Researchers suspect that such stimuli are conducted via special nerves from the skin directly to the brain stem and from there to the oxytocin-containing nerves. There they stimulate the release of oxytocin.11
For these reasons oxytocin got its name as a cuddle hormone. The name "cuddle hormone" is mostly appropriate, but does not do justice to the many functions of oxytocin. After all, doctors and psychologists are working intensively on using oxytocin or the oxytocin receptor for therapy for depression, social anxiety and even autism.
Where is oxytocin synthesized?
The hypothalamus in your brain synthesizes oxytocin. From there it is transported via nerve cells to the neurohypophysis, where it is stored and released into the bloodstream as a hormone when required. As a neurotransmitter, oxytocin acts locally on downstream nerve cells.
Where can I find oxytocin as a supplement?
It is not clear to what extent oxytocin can cross the blood-brain barrier. But that would be necessary for the effects on the brain and behavior. This is why oxytocin has not yet been used as a supplement. On the other hand, in most behavioral studies, the subjects were given oxytocin as a nasal spray and the researchers were able to determine a behavior-changing effect.12
However, the changes in behavior can also have occurred indirectly through oxytocin, in that oxytocin lowers the stress level and thus causes the changed behavior. After all, everyone behaves differently under stress than in a relaxed mood. Studies with autistic people, however, speak for a direct effect. With the help of an oxytocin nasal spray, autistic behavior patterns could be improved in the experiment.13, 14
However, so far there are no studies on the long-term effects of artificial oxytocin. Nobody knows how it would affect the entire hormonal system in the long term. There is a risk of confusing things, and all the more so if ingested oxytocin actually increases the oxytocin concentration in the brain.
How recommendable are oxytocin nasal sprays?
Experts therefore clearly advise against using oxytocin nasal sprays on your own. In any case, accompanying psychotherapy is necessary to treat mental illnesses. Otherwise, oxytocin cannot do much in this form. Oxytocin nasal spray is also not a relationship saver. An increase in oxytocin via the natural mechanisms would anyway make much more sense.
Doctors do use oxytocin as a drug. They inject it into women giving birth to induce labor and to encourage labor. Oxytocin is also used as a drug in the form of nasal spray for breastfeeding difficulties. However, it is not necessary for oxytocin to cross the blood-brain barrier for these effects.
What are the alternatives to oxytocin as a supplement?
You could still achieve part of the oxytocin effect through dietary supplements by using the neurotransmitter GABA. You don't have to increase your oxytocin first so that it stimulates the GABA-releasing nerve cells. Instead, you could use other ways to increase the effects of GABA.
How can you lower your stress level?
Studies indicate that substances from lemon balm and passion flower can mimic GABA and bind to its receptors.15, 16 Another possibility is to make your receptors more sensitive to GABA.
According to researchers, this could be made possible by certain substances from the Reishi mushroom.17 GABA can therefore more easily bind to its receptors through Reishi, so that fewer GABA molecules convey the stress-relieving and calming effect.
Alternatively, you can use your Increase serotonin levelsto optimize your well-being. According to scientific studies, you can achieve this with L-tryptophan.18 L-Tryptophan is found in cocoa and soybeans. Substances from the cherry tree and turmeric could equally support your serotonin balance.19, 20
Your serotonin level drops due to stress. So if you boost your serotonin level, you also counteract stress symptoms. In this way you achieve an effect similar to that of increasing your oxytocin level. L-theanine from green tea is even said to increase your levels of GABA, serotonin and dopamine jointly influence positively.21
How can you increase your oxytocin level?
There are several natural ways to increase your oxytocin levels and benefit from the effects of oxytocin. Every positive social contact has a stimulating effect on your oxytocin system. The more intense and pleasant this contact, the stronger the effect.
Consequently, sex, massage, and cuddling are the most promising methods. Even hugs can cause oxytocin to rise. After all, there's a worldwide Hugging Day for a reason. Particularly empathetic people can also simply bring joy to their loved ones. By empathizing with this joy, the desired effect on the brain occurs.