Mostly hailed as being the love hormone, oxytocin has recently been bestowed with a number of different nicknames as researchers have started to unravel some of the secrets that lie within its effects. Nicknames like the hug hormone, monogamy hormone, trust-me drug, moral molecule, bliss hormone and cuddle chemical have arisen from the effects oxytocin has on love and behavior in both men and women, and in the reproductive-related functions of females.
What Is It And What It Does?
To start with, oxytocin is a hormone. Hormones are chemical messengers produced in different parts of the body and secreted directly into the bloodstream. The organs that release these hormones are called endocrine glands and hence, make up a system in the body called the endocrine system.
So, where is oxytocin made? Oxytocin is made inside the brain by the hypothalamus, which is about the size of a pearl. Then, oxytocin is sent to the pituitary gland, a pea-sized organ located at the base of the brain, where it is released into the blood. The release of oxytocin regulates two functions in the female reproductive system:
- Childbirth And Uterine Contraction: Oxytocin makes the muscles of the uterus contract. The widening of the vagina and cervix during labor triggers the release of oxytocin from the pituitary gland. So, the more oxytocin released, the more frequent the contractions are.
- Breast Feeding: Suckling triggers the release of oxytocin, which in turn triggers the ejection of milk from the nipple. The level of this hormone spikes in the first 5 or 6 minutes of each feeding and then returns to back to normal as the feeding comes to an end.
Oxytocin’s Effects on Emotions
Apart from being a facilitator for childbirth and breastfeeding, oxytocin has been shown to affect our emotions and behavior, in both men and women as follows:
- Easing stress and naturally promoting sleep (resulting in a calming effect)
- Making you feel more generous
- Strengthening relationships and bonds
- Promoting attachment between a mother and her newborn
- Inducing maternal behavior
- Being linked to trust, empathy and prosperity
- Making us more sympathetic, supportive and open with our feelings
Functions of Oxytocin
Oxytocin and Love
It is no surprise that oxytocin is called the love hormone. It is released at the climax of the human sexual response, in both males and females. A number of studies have found increases in the plasma level of oxytocin at an orgasm in both men and women.
- In females: it causes contraction of the uterus (in a non-pregnant woman)
- In males: it causes contractions of the vas deferens, thus leading to an increase in sperm transport
Scientists studied the effect of oxytocin on romantic bonds by comparing oxytocin levels in new lovers and single people. “The increase in oxytocin during the period of falling in love was the highest that we ever found,” Psychology professor Ruth Feldman says of a study she and her colleagues published in Psych neuroendocrinology. New lovers had double the amount oxytocin usually seen in pregnant women!
Oxytocin and Autism
Oxytocin helps improve overall social behaviour and helps promote social bonds. Recent studies are looking into the potential of using this hormone to treat autism. Autism is a disorder characterized by impaired social interactions, relationships and communication. Clinical trials are underway, in the United States, where patients suffering from autism are being given a nasal spray containing the hormone. Preliminary results are showing improvement in social behaviour in comparison to patients who received a nasal spray containing only saline.
Oxytocin and Medical Uses
Oxytocin is widely used in obstetrics. It is used to induce child labor in women who have
- Rh problems
- Preeclampsia that is a disorder of pregnancy characterized by a high blood pressure and large amounts of protein in the urine
- Any time it is in the best interest of the mother or fetus
It is also used by doctors to:
- Help abort the fetus in cases of incomplete abortion or miscarriage
- Produce contractions during the third stage of labor
- Control bleeding after childbirth
- Aid in breastfeeding
Oxytocin should not be administered in certain conditions. Such conditions include:
- You are allergic to any ingredient in oxytocin
- Your birth canal is too small in comparison to the fetus’s head
- The fetus is in distress or a difficult position within the womb and delivery is not progressing
- You cannot have a child with vaginal delivery because of certain conditions (eg, genital herpes, cervical cancer)
- You have bacteria in the blood
- You have other complications that require medical intervention for birth
To conclude, knowing the chemistry of our body is the first step in understanding how and why we are the way we are. Oxytocin, the love hormone, is definitely a name to remember. The next time someone tells you to follow your heart when it comes to love, you might want to tell them “it’s all in the head”.