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Bliss Molecules and Love Hormones Propel Our Social Networks

Social connectivity is driven by oxytocin and mediated by endocannabinoids.

Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock
Source: Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock

Neuroscientists from the University of California, Irvine have discovered that the “love hormone” oxytocin stimulates the brain production of self-produced cannabis neurotransmitters called endocannabinoids—which are also known as the “bliss molecule." This dynamic duo enhances the pleasure of social interactions and drives our human urge for intimate relationships. 

From an evolutionary perspective, it appears that love hormones and bliss molecules work in tandem to make us feel good at a neurobiological level when we create and maintain close-knit human bonds, build a relationship with a romantic partner, or tend-and-befriend those within our community. 

The October 2015 study, ”Endocannabinoid Signaling Mediates Oxytocin-Driven Social Reward,” was published in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. According to the researchers, this study provides the first link between oxytocin and anandamide—which has been called the "bliss molecule" based on its marijuana-like effect of activating the cannabinoid receptors in brain cells—having the ability to illicit motivation, reward, and happiness when we connect with others.

In The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss, I write extensively about anandamide and oxytocin as central players in our survival as a species from both an evolutionary standpoint and in a modern age. From pp 3-4:

"In soaking in the rapture of sport, I am always reminded of Joseph Campbell who said, "Follow your bliss," and who often refers to the Sanskrit word ananda, which means bliss or rapture. Ananda is the root used to name anandamide, the endocannabinoid released during exercise, linked to runner's high more than endorphin. Anandamide is called "The Bliss Molecule" by neuroscientists and is the key to feeling good when we sweat." 

The hypothesis that I created regarding oxytocin and endocannabinoids was founded on my distillation of the yin-yang of “fight-or-flight” vs. “rest-and-digest” or “tend-and-befriend.”

Wikimedia/Creative Commons
Homeostasis relies on the yin and yang of our sympathic and parasympathetic nervous systems. 
Source: Wikimedia/Creative Commons

In my mind, the polarity of our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are biologically designed to maintain homeostasis in a push-pull fashion by making us feel good when breaking a sweat, as we would have to do as hunters and gatherers, and by bonding with other humans as we banded in small social tribes to protect or individual and collective familial safety. Obviously, we are still hardwired by these neurobiological mechanisms of motivation and reward today.

In terms of daily life millennia ago, I imagine someone’s day from sunrise to sundown being driven primarily by hunting and foraging for food. Then, after sunset, sitting by the fire near a cave or hut eating, fornicating, snuggling, and sleeping. These biological mechanisms and cravings drive much of our behavior to this day. 

Last night, as I was walking over to my neighbor's house for dinner here in New England, after a trip to Hawaii, I smelled wood burning in family fireplaces filling the autumn air for the first time in ages. A few moments later, as I sat by the fire with my close friends, eating delicious food, and sharing conversation, I felt that my primal urge to nest and be close to others had been fulfilled. Every cell in my body felt content and I said to myself, “This captures the essence of what it feels like to be home on every level.”

In The Athlete’s Way, I distilled the key neurochemical players of these emotions and drivers of our behavior as being endocannabinoids for creating the “runner’s high” and oxytocin as being the “love hormone” that makes us want to bond with others. Under this hypothesis, anandamide fuels the motivation and reward of the “fight-or-flight” of the parasympathetic nervous system, and, on the flip side, oxytocin propels the “tend-and-befriend” motivation and reward of the sympathetic nervous system.

Since we are no longer hunting and gathering our food, I created a daily prescriptive that would basically mirror the concept of engaging these systems regularly via daily physicality and maintaining close-knit face to face human bonds. These lifestyle choices are a way to help each of us avoid the future shock of "too much change in too short a time" caused by the sedentarism and isolation of the Facebook age that is causing our bodies and minds to short circuit at a neurobiological level.   

Oxytocin and Endocannabinoids Work in Tandem to Drive Social Connectivity

Petukhov Anton/Shutterstock
Our primal urge to bond with other humans may be linked to endocannabinoids and oxytocin. 
Source: Petukhov Anton/Shutterstock

It turns out that my original hypothesis about oxytocin and endocannabinoids is only partially correct... Based on the latest findings, it appears that oxytocin and endocannabinoids may, in fact, be joined at the hip. What I love about this new study from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) is that their research shows us, for the first time, that oxytocin and endocannabinoids are not opposite sides of a coin, but in fact are probably working in tandem. This is a very exciting discovery!

To investigate the role of anandamide in social contact, Daniele Piomelli and his colleagues at UCI measured levels of anandimide in mice that had been either isolated or allowed to interact socially. Anandamide molecules attach to the same brain cell receptors (CB-1) as marijuana's active ingredient, THC.

The researchers discovered that social contact increased the production of anandamide in a brain structure called the nucleus accumbens, which plays a direct role in pleasure seeking behaviors. Socializing triggered cannabinoid receptors in this brain region to reinforce the pleasure of socialization. However, when the researchers blocked the cannabinoid receptors, this positive reinforcement disappeared.

Piomelli's team then looked for a possible connection between anandamide and oxytocin. They found that a small number of neurons in the brain make oxytocin and use it as a neurotransmitter. When the scientists stimulated those neurons, they discovered an increase in anandamide production in the nucleus accumbens. More importantly, they identified that blocking anandamide's effects also blocked the pro-social effects of oxytocin. This implies that oxytocin reinforces social ties by triggering the production of anandamide.

The researchers also found that interrupting the degradation of anandamide enhanced the pleasure of social contact. Animals treated with a drug that stops anandamide degradation behaved as though they enjoyed spending time with their cage mates more than animals treated with a placebo.

In a press release, Piomelli concluded, "Our findings open the exciting possibility that drugs that block the degradation of anandamide, which are currently being tested for various anxiety disorders, could give a boost to the brain's own oxytocin and help people with autism socialize more.”

In terms of oxytocin and autism, a separate October 2015 study from the University of Sydney found that a five-week treatment with synthetic oxytocin significantly improved social, emotional, and behavioral issues among young children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD.)

Conclusion: Oxytocin Changes Mood if Partnered with Anandamide or Cortisol

I’ve written extensively about oxytocin in previous Psychology Today blog posts. One important caveat is that oxytocin has a potential “dark side." It appears that oxytocin has the potential to fuel machiavellian behavior and when bonded with the "stress hormone" cortisol it can hardwire fear-based memories.

I wrote about this in a July 2015 blog post titled, “Cortisol and Oxytocin Hardwire Fear-Based Memories,” based on research from Northwestern Medicine which found that although oxytocin is typically associated with our most positive, intimite bonds and falling in love—it is also responsible for some of our most long-lasting psychological pain, including the memories associated with a break up.

Oxytocin can bring us extreme highs, but also extreme lows, in the spectrum of our interpersonal relationships. On the one hand, oxytocin fortifies the most powerful bonds of a human relationship. However, it's also likely to be the culprit behind the gut-wrenching feelings of social isolation, loneliness, and being brokenhearted.

In a press release, Jelena Radulovic, professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences and pharmacology at Northwestern, and senior author of the study said, "By understanding the oxytocin system's dual role in triggering or reducing anxiety, depending on the social context, we can optimize oxytocin treatments that improve well-being instead of triggering negative reactions."

As an educated guess—based on a comparison of the new study from UCI compared to the research from Northwestern—I suspect that when oxytocin is coupled with endocannabinoids it fuels the comforting emotions of being safe and sound in a social context. Conversely, when oxytocin is paired with cortisol it reinforces social anxiety, memories of social defeat, and feelings of isolation. 

Hopefully, future research will expand on the chameleon-like personality of oxytocin to make us feel socially connected and bonded or fearful and alone depending on our levels of cortisol and endocannabinoids.

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts,

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