What Oxytocin Does to You: Love and Mental Disorders

Part 1: The neuropeptide of emotions influences your experiences and behavior.

Posted Nov 20, 2019

Photo by Michael Fenton on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Michael Fenton on Unsplash

What is oxytocin?

A neuropeptide and hormone peptide.

Okay, what does that mean, David?

To bring us from esoteric biochemistry to the practically useful, it means that it is one of the various chemicals in your body that influences your experiences and behavior.

So how does oxytocin influence my experiences and how I behave?

Good question, reader.

“OXT is important for social memory and attachment, sexual and maternal behavior, and aggression.” [1]

That’s oxytocin in a nutshell, but there are a whole host of other effects, so let’s dive deeper into the negatives and positives of oxytocin.

Negative effects of oxytocin

In my post on how to use nootropics safely, I wrote that I think it is good to “spend 90 percent of your researching time on side effects, remedies and interactions." So let’s start with the negative effects of increasing oxytocin. The main negatives of high levels of oxytocin are:

  1. Overinterpretation of emotional cues in social interactions.
  2. Cognitive biases.
  3. In-group bias, aggression, and prejudice.

Oxytocin seems to enhance a person's sense of social boundaries and strengthen their perceived importance:

“The prosocial neuropeptide oxytocin (OXT) has been identified as a key facilitator of both interpersonal attraction and the formation of parental attachment. However, whether OXT contributes to the maintenance of monogamous bonds after they have been formed is unclear. In this randomized placebo-controlled trial, we provide the first behavioral evidence that the intranasal administration of OXT stimulates men in a monogamous relationship, but not single ones, to keep a much greater distance (~10–15 cm) between themselves and an attractive woman during a first encounter.” [2]

However, high levels of oxytocin could, I theorize, lead to overinterpretation of emotional cues in social interactions. If you’re already prone to social anxiousness, increasing your sensitivity to emotional cues is probably not a good thing.

Don’t get too anxious about this, though: Only around 2 percent are estimated to have a dysregulation of oxytocin.

“The first important finding is that 98 percent of the hundreds of people I have tested release oxytocin properly when they are trusted. The human oxytocin system motivates a desire to interact with others, and those whose brains release a spike of oxytocin reciprocate the trust they have been shown. Now, the other 2 percent of people I have tested have dysregulated oxytocin—typically high and non-responsive to signals of trust. These people do not develop strong attachments to others.” [3]

An individual’s relationship to an in-group is that (s)he is a part of that group, while his/her relationship to an out-group is that (s)he is not a part of that group. High levels of oxytocin raise in-group favoritism, but this often comes at the cost of out-group trust. This could, I theorize, lead to reduced intelligence by increasing the role of cognitive biases when thinking and making decisions.

“Results demonstrated that on trials in which the ratings of the in-group and out-group were incongruent, the ratings of participants given oxytocin conformed to the ratings of their in-group but not of their out-group. […] These findings indicate that administration of oxytocin can influence subjective preferences, and they support the view that oxytocin’s effects on social behavior are context dependent.” [4]

A more clear-cut conclusion to draw from these in-group favoritism findings is that high levels of oxytocin could lead to aggression and prejudice.

Positive effects of oxytocin

The main positives of high levels of oxytocin are:

  1. Feelings of love and trust.
  2. Reading and remembering emotional cues—social intelligence.
  3. Stress and anxiety prevention.
  4. Mother-child bonding.
  5. Prevention of destructive and addictive behaviors.
  6. Prevention of mental disorders.

A well-functioning oxytocin system is probably important for the ability to read social cues.

“Oxytocin released in response to social stimuli may be part of a neuroendocrine substrate which underlies the benefits of positive social experiences.” [5]

“Our data suggest that oxytocin improves the ability to infer the mental state of others from social cues of the eye region.” [6]

“The neuropeptide oxytocin (OT) has emerged as a key regulator of diverse social behaviors in vertebrates and, thus, has been identified as a potential therapeutic target for improving social dysfunction.” [7]

In my experience and opinion, an increase in information-processing related to the emotions of other people can improve social intelligence. You’re almost per definition more socially intelligent if you consider other people’s emotions more. Increased memory encoding of social positive information has been shown in several different studies and is one of the most researched functions of oxytocin.

“This study shows that the administration of oxytocin to male humans enhances the encoding of positive social information to make it more memorable. Results suggest that oxytocin could enhance social approach, intimacy, and bonding in male humans by strengthening encoding to make the recall of positive social information more likely.” [8]

Healthy levels of oxytocin can also prevent destructive and addictive behaviors.

“Food intake or sex may be used or even abused to achieve oxytocin-linked well-being and stress relief to compensate for lack of good relationships or when the levels of anxiety are high.” [9]

“This suggests not only that the endogenous OT system may play a role in the neuroplastic changes that occur with repeated psychostimulant and ethanol exposure but that exogenous OT may buffet these changes and prevent the development of alcohol and psychostimulant use disorders as well as anxiety disorders.” [10]

If you have don’t have enough oxytocin, you’ll be likely to experience stress and anxiety. [11]

Oxytocin also plays a major role in mother-child bonding. [9]

Having too little oxytocin is hypothesized to be one of many contributing factors in mental disorders such as major depressive disorder [12], and autism spectrum disorder [13].

Oxytocin genes & SNPs (Advanced)

The rs53576 SNP.

A single nucleotide polymorphism is a gene that varies between individuals in the same species. The rs53576 SNP is the most important SNP for how oxytocin works in your body and brain. Examples of (rs53576) SNP variations are AA, AG, and AG. The GG variation of the rs53576 SNP seems to be “better", especially for cognition.

“GG was less empathetic to pain experienced by racial ‘out group’ vs racial ‘in group’ members (Asians vs Whites). However, AA experienced more pleasure from pain to racial out groups.” [14]

“Non-verbal intelligence was significantly reduced in rs53576 A/A adolescents (T=2.247, p=0.027). Our findings support a role for the oxytocin receptor haplotypes in the generation of affectivity, emotional loneliness and IQ.” [15]

“Infants’ faces were more strongly preferred following oxytocin inhalation relative to placebo. When participants were separated according to genotype, this effect was only observed for participants homozygous for the rs53576G allele. Parallel effects were not seen for adults’ faces.” [16]

The OXTR gene

“Because oxytocin also suppresses amygdala activity, this gene also affects the sensitivity of your amygdala to potential threats. For example, if you have a copy of this gene that makes you less sensitive to oxytocin, your amygdala will be chronically over-active, which will cause it to grow larger and stronger. This, in turn, will further increase your sensitivity to common sources of stress and anxiety ...” [11]

There is a lot of potential to personalized medicine based on SNP testing, but currently, it is not among the best (efficient, effective, safe) methods for increasing oxytocin.

In the second part of this series, we'll look at how you can increase oxytocin in yourself for increased social intelligence and feelings of love.

This post is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

This post was originally published at nootralize.com.

References

[1] Heon-Jin Lee et al. (2009). Oxytocin: the Great Facilitator of Life. Prog Neurobiology.

[2] Scheele D et al. (2012). Oxytocin modulates social distance between males and females. The journal of neuroscience.

[3] Paul J. Zak. (2008). The Oxytocin Cure. Psychology Today.

[4] Stallen M et al. (2012). The herding hormone: oxytocin stimulates in-group conformity. Psychological Science.

[5] Uvnäs-Moberg K. (1998). Oxytocin may mediate the benefits of positive social interaction and emotions. Psychoneuroendocrinology.

[6] Gregor Domes et al. (2007). Oxytocin Improves “Mind-Reading” in Humans. Biological psychiatry.

[7] Gulliver D. et al. (2019). Targeting the Oxytocin System: New Pharmacotherapeutic Approaches. Trends in pharmacological sciences.

[8] Guastella AJ et al. (2008). Oxytocin enhances the encoding of positive social memories in humans. Biological Psychiatry.

[13] Yamasue H. and Domes G. (2018). Oxytocin and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences.

[14] Joe Cohen. (2019). Oxytocin Genes (OXTR) & SNPs: Are You High or Low in it? SelfHacked.

[15] Lucht MJ. et al. Associations between the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) and affect, loneliness and intelligence in normal subjects. Progress in neuro-psychopharmacology and biological psychiatry.