We evolved to live in social groups and evolution endowed us with genes and chemicals such as oxytocin to keep us that way. Oxytocin influences our behaviours and our health. Found throughout the animal Kingdom, it has been with us for a staggering 100 million years. Oxytocin helps us to meet our social needs by cementing and supporting our relationships, our deep interpersonal and social bonds.
What does oxytocin do?
Oxytocin is a happy hormone, a reward hormone. Reward reinforces our behaviour, helping us to be sociable and to form close relationships. Dubbed by the press as the love hormone, it makes us feel good. It gives us a warm feeling and is responsible for our happy mood. It helps us to live amongst other people in a healthy way.
Oxytocin is the grease of the social brain and increases communication and bonding.1 It has a positive impact on our social behaviours, makes us feel more relaxed and helps us to enjoy a stable outlook. We know that oxytocin increases trust, and trust is an important part of success. Trust changes our behaviour, as people who trust others are more willing to accept risks through their social contacts. Oxytocin regulates our emotions and our thinking.
Some think of oxytocin as the hormone associated only with childbirth and love, but it is much, much more! Oxytocin is ‘Nature’s Natural Medicine’.2 It helps us to cope with stress, supports our immune system and is a powerful antioxidant, reducing mitochondrial oxidative stress. Implicated in wound healing, it reduces skin damage from burns and reduces gut inflammation. The actions don’t stop there; oxytocin is a slippery fellow, small but immensely strong!
Dealing with acute stress is an essential part of our survival mechanism; we adapt to stressful experiences as we grow. Acute stress is accompanied by release of oxytocin, which in turn increases social behaviour and induces changes in many organs, including the heart. However, long-term stress has adverse implications and causes problems in metabolism, immunity and cerebral functions, with accompanying poor health. Long-term stress shortens our telomeres, a marker of ageing.
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A loving partner reduces the effect of stress. Close relationships and oxytocin buffer us from the negative effects of stress and facilitate both our recovery and resilience. Research has consistently shown that a social support system is of great benefit in times of stress.
Oxytocin has a central part in our immune system. Laboratory studies have repeatedly demonstrated the protective effects of oxytocin in coping with infections, toxins and immune challenges.2
More recent work has highlighted the role of oxytocin in energy balance, modulating appetite, eating behaviour and obesity. Some studies have shown that oxytocin reduces eating, increases energy expenditure, and decreases belly fat: a win win! But other studies show conflicting results and more research is needed. It will be some time, before oxytocin is translated into obesity treatment.3
How does oxytocin affect my health?
There is a huge amount of data confirming the health benefits of both intimate relationships and other close relationships, such as between families, friends and communities. Healthy and supportive close relationships promote good health and well-being. They also are a buffer to the development of both mental and physical illnesses. While the underlying mechanism for these health benefits is complex, oxytocin is one of the fundamental chemicals involved in supporting your close relationships.
People in the Blue Zones of the world have the longest, healthiest life expectancy on the planet, with the largest number of people reaching the age of 100.4 Not just do they live a long time, they are healthy until very late in life. They do not suffer from chronic metabolic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. They are amazing examples of healthy ageing.
There are commonalities in the lifestyles of the people who live in Blue Zones and they have remarkably similar social units. They live in the ‘right tribe’, they commit to friends for life and create strong social circles. They belong to a community and have a purpose. These behaviours are associated with high oxytocin levels, and it brings them a long, healthy life.
An absence of close relationships carries a health risk factor equivalent to smoking, alcoholism and a lack of physical activity. The effect of loneliness on people without a social network is the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And loneliness affects all age groups: recent work showed that between 7-30% of people in the EU are lonely; a staggering, sad indictment of modern societies.
Close relationships, associated with oxytocin are particularly valuable in the helping to withstand stress. Many studies have confirmed that the presence of a supportive partner acts as a safety signal, reducing perceptions of threat. Laboratory experiments have shown that if people feel understood, they have a higher tolerance to ice water, perceive a hill as less steep and estimate a shorter distance to a target location.5 This is known as stress buffering. It reduces the adverse effects of stress, which plays havoc with our health, leading to heart disease, strokes and dementia.
How do i boost my oxytocin levels?
Oxytocin treatment has been tried and has not worked well: you can’t just take a pill and hope to get the benefits of oxytocin.
Complex feedback mechanisms involving its sister hormone vasopressin mean that when oxytocin is taken as medication, its actions are either muted, non-existent or unpredictable. For now, to get oxytocin benefits, you don’t need big Pharma, you need to make it yourself. And this is possible:
You can boost your “natural” oxytocin levels!
Oxytocin is made in your brain and secreted by the pituitary gland, located at the base of your brain. Levels vary between individuals, and with age and sex. The levels and response to oxytocin are determined both by your genes and life experiences, particularly those during early life. You make oxytocin all the time and its release is increased by certain behaviours. You can do a lot to support your happy hormone, oxytocin.
A new close relationship is a sure-fire way of increasing your oxytocin. Higher levels of oxytocin are found in new lovers, compared to singles: unsurprising as oxytocin is an essential part of forming interpersonal bonds. MRI scans have shown that brain areas supporting romantic attachment are activated by oxytocin. The level of oxytocin has been shown to predict the success of relationships: the higher the oxytocin at the start of the relationship, the greater the likelihood of success.6 Couples in long-term good relationships are known to have high levels of oxytocin.
The Importance of Touch
Such is the importance of touch, your brain determines the precise nature of each touch or contact: friend or foe, toxic or harmless, genuine lover or lecherous slime ball. Without touch, ‘skin hunger’ develops, with serious and long-lasting adverse effects on your health. Things become very gloomy if you live without physical touch. Even a simple friendly touch releases oxytocin. Preterm babies suffer in intensive care, missing the touch of their mother and studies show that massage helps, by elevating oxytocin.
Studies have also found that oxytocin levels increase after physical intimacy with your partner, even when performed in the sterile environment of a laboratory! Hugging, kissing and cuddling with people you care for, increases your oxytocin. Touching is one of the most effective ways of increasing your oxytocin. So, get touching!
Surrounding yourself with loved ones and other pleasant pastimes increase your oxytocin. Listening to your favourite music, exercising and socializing with people that you are deeply connected with, all increase your oxytocin. There are many known health benefits of having a pet. Stroking your dog increases not just your oxytocin, and but also your dogs! 7
The immune-endocrine-brain network is supported by the gut microbiome. A healthy diverse colony of gut bugs has positive effects on oxytocin secretion. The probiotic Lactobacillus reuturei has been shown to upregulate oxytocin, which in turn upregulates your immune responses.8 In the light of this intimate relationship, it makes good sense to look after your gut bugs to support your oxytocin levels.
You are driven by ancient forces, deep in your DNA, and you need other people for your survival. Gifting you with pleasant, lovely feelings, oxytocin is a major player in determining your social behaviour. You can improve your mood and your health with small behavioural changes, that lead to an increase in your oxytocin.
- Oxytocin gives you warm, loving and happy feelings
- Oxytocin, ‘Nature’s Natural Medicine’ has huge health benefits
- Oxytocin rewards you with better moods and contributes to happiness
- Oxytocin as a pill, has shown disappointing results
- You can boost your “natural” oxytocin levels by simple human behaviours
- Touching, hugging, kissing people that you care for, increases oxytocin release
- A strong good relationship is associated with increased oxytocin
- Physical intimacy increases oxytocin release
- Petting an animal releases oxytocin
- Music, exercise and socializing all release oxytocin
- Look after your gut bugs
- Skin touching is fundamental to your health
- Skin hunger has serious and long-lasting adverse effects on health
Walum H, Young LJ. The neural mechanisms and circuitry of the pair bond. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2018 Nov;19(11):643-654. doi: 10.1038/s41583-018-0072-6. PMID: 30301953; PMCID: PMC6283620.
Carter CS, Kenkel WM, MacLean EL, Wilson SR, Perkeybile AM, Yee JR, Ferris CF, Nazarloo HP, Porges SW, Davis JM, Connelly JJ, Kingsbury MA. Is Oxytocin "Nature's Medicine"? Pharmacol Rev. 2020 Oct;72(4):829-861. doi: 10.1124/pr.120.019398. PMID: 32912963; PMCID: PMC7495339.
Kerem L, Lawson EA. The Effects of Oxytocin on Appetite Regulation, Food Intake and Metabolism in Humans. Int J Mol Sci. 2021 Jul 20;22(14):7737. doi: 10.3390/ijms22147737. PMID: 34299356; PMCID: PMC8306733.
Pietromonaco PR, Collins NL. Interpersonal mechanisms linking close relationships to health. Am Psychol. 2017 Sep;72(6):531-542. doi: 10.1037/amp0000129. PMID: 28880100; PMCID: PMC5598782.
Schneiderman I, Zagoory-Sharon O, Leckman JF, Feldman R. Oxytocin during the initial stages of romantic attachment: relations to couples' interactive reciprocity. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2012 Aug;37(8):1277-85. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2011.12.021. Epub 2012 Jan 26. PMID: 22281209; PMCID: PMC3936960.
Barrington Chell P, Hope-Ross M. Bluezones. The Diet Whisperer 2020
Bolló H, Kiss O, Kis A, Topál J. The implicit reward value of the owner's face for dogs. iScience. 2021 Jun 24;24(8):102763. doi: 10.1016/j.isci.2021.102763. PMID: 34401657; PMCID: PMC8355952.
Erdman SE, Poutahidis T. Microbes and Oxytocin: Benefits for Host Physiology and Behavior. Int Rev Neurobiol. 2016;131:91-126. doi: 10.1016/bs.irn.2016.07.004. Epub 2016 Sep 13. PMID: 27793228.