The Power of Oxytocin

For a little brain chemical, oxytocin has some big jobs.

Posted Feb 11, 2020

What is oxytocin?

Oxytocin has been coined the “love hormone” for good reason—you know those warm and fuzzy feelings you get when you cuddle a puppy, hug your friend, or kiss your partner? That’s oxytocin at work.

Oxytocin has been in the headlines, gaining a reputation for making people more social, trusting, generous, and loving. It’s a neuropeptide, meaning that it’s a protein-like molecule your brain cells use to communicate with each other. Oxytocin is also a hormone, meaning that the brain releases it into the bloodstream to communicate with the body.

For a little brain chemical, oxytocin has some big jobs—it plays a role in sex, childbirth, bonding, social interaction, emotions, and many other functions important to us mammals. Our brains produce it naturally, but there's also synthetic oxytocin that is sometimes used therapeutically.

Regardless of how you get a dose, oxytocin seems to not only nudge us towards more pro-social behavior, but it can also affect our memory and thinking. Let’s look at some ways that this complicated brain chemical affects the way we feel and act, and how we can coax the brain to release more of it for those feel-good feelings:

Oxytocin probably helps people to bond through openness, trust, and generosity.

Oxytocin got its glowing reputation from the evidence that it seems to help us be more open and connected with others. For example, one fascinating study found that when male college students got a dose of oxytocin from a nasal spray, they were more willing to share their emotions about a painful memory with a stranger than participants who got a placebo spray. 

Not only did a dose of oxytocin make individuals trust strangers more with their emotions but with their cold, hard cash too! A separate study had participants play an investment game where they could entrust any amount of their money tokens to another participant, a custodian. Those who sniffed an oxytocin spray were much more likely to let this agent hang onto their tokens. Most of this group handed over most or all of the money. In contrast, those who only got a placebo spray were less willing to trust a stranger. Only one-fifth of them handed over all of their tokens. 

But what about straight-up handing over your hard-earned money to a stranger in need? Oxytocin might make a person more benevolent, too. Another study found that when people got an oxytocin nasal spray, they shared 80 percent more money with a total stranger than people who did not get the spray!

So should we all add taking a dose of oxytocin to our morning routines? If all the traders on Wall Street got a sniff with their morning coffees, would the trading floor be less cut-throat?

Not so fast. There have also been studies that failed to find the same results, and none of these sensational studies can tell us about oxytocin's effects in daily life or in the long term. Plus, we should always be careful about study findings that seem too good to be true. I would say that things are looking promisingly warm and fuzzy for oxytocin, but the science is not rock-solid enough yet that we start carrying oxytocin sprays in our purses and backpacks.

Oxytocin has complicated effects on memory.

Despite the warm and fuzzy feelings it can bring about, not every effect of oxytocin is positive. 

It’s possible that oxytocin can actually impair memory. A study published around the same time as the trust study found that when people got a dose of oxytocin spray, they performed worse on a word recall test than people who got a placebo spray.

Does that mean oxytocin makes us more forgetful? Interestingly, this might depend on your attachment style. This refers to your pattern of bonding with other people, including the way you deal with trust, autonomy, and intimacy. A recent study found that if your attachment style is more emotionally independent (that is, you find depending on others uncomfortable), oxytocin actually improves your ability to learn and recall a list of words. But oxytocin had a detrimental effect on the memories of those who were more willing to rely on others.

Still, these two studies were only looking at short-term learning and recall. What about in the long run? Oxytocin redeems itself here. It’s no surprise that too much stress is harmful to the hippocampus, a brain area indispensable to memory formation. (This is true for us and for rats.) But if a stressed-out rat got an oxytocin spray, it seemed to protect the brain cells in their hippocampus, which helps their memory health in the long run.

Oxytocin provides pain relief.

Continuing the list of all the positive things oxytocin can do, it may be helpful for physical pain relief as well.

First, it’s interesting to know that people with chronic pain, like those with fibromyalgia, naturally have lower levels of oxytocin circulating in their blood. The lower their oxytocin level, the higher they rate their pain, stress, and depression. Even healthy people with lower blood levels of oxytocin had lower pain tolerance.

Scientists became curious about whether providing people with oxytocin would decrease their pain levels or pain sensitivity. It did, specifically for those with chronic migraine, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic back pain, and even cancer pain. For people without pain disorders, oxytocin made them better able to tolerate acute pain. 

Even more incredible is that oxytocin potentially not only works directly on the brain’s pain processing areas, but also indirectly decreases suffering by relieving depression and anxiety related to pain. Since oxytocin has many different effects on the central nervous system, working through both physiological and psychological channels, it may be able to ease the vicious spiral that people fall into when their pain makes them feel hopeless and anxious, which in turn worsens the pain.

Shutterstock/Flamingo Images
Source: Shutterstock/Flamingo Images

How can you naturally get more oxytocin in your life?

Even though oxytocin is complicated, and the flashy headlines about its power should be taken with a grain of salt, it's still safe to say it’s a generally useful chemical for our well-being and joy.

While oxytocin sprays claiming all kinds of magical benefits are sold online, be wary—the research really hasn’t tested how and whether they work. There is also no regulation of these sprays.

But worry not, we can get doses of oxytocin in natural ways. Here are some things you can do to get more into your bloodstream:

  • Hug and cuddle. Comforting physical touch is a sure way to fire up the oxytocin—between parents and children, between couples, and of course, between humans and dogs. So get to snuggling! 
  • Have sex (or love yourself). Sexual pleasure is one of the most efficient ways to get a big shot of oxytocin. Whether you’re with a partner or helping yourself, oxytocin can skyrocket with orgasm.
  • Watch an emotional movie. When we feel compassion towards others, we’re putting ourselves emotionally in their shoes. A research study showed that inducing empathy by watching emotional video clips raised people’s oxytocin levels, which in turn led them to be more generous. (Might I recommend the first five minutes of “Up” for a potent boost?)
  • Give birth and breastfeed. Obviously this is not an option for everyone, but if you happen to be planning on giving birth in the future, you get to look forward to the rush of oxytocin that you’ll get in the process. This huge oxytocin release does everything from causing uterine contractions, which starts the process of birthing the baby, to getting the body ready for breastfeeding. The oxytocin will also help you bond with your baby and generally give you that warm, glowing feeling that new moms are famous for. 

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