Give someone a cuddle – or even ride a roller-coaster – and you’ll release nature’s own potent ‘love drug’. Jane Mulkerrins from the Daily Mail unveils the mystery of the hormone oxytocin.
- Oxytocin was discovered in 1909 by the British pharmacologist Sir Henry H Dale. He found it could cause contractions and speed up the birthing process, so he named it after the Greek for ‘quick’ and ‘childbirth’. Dale later discovered that oxytocin will also stimulate the release of breast milk by contracting cells around the mammary glands. Studies have also shown that oxytocin plays a significant role in sexual arousal and in orgasm, in both men and women.
- Oxytocin is far more than a useful bedroom, birth and breast-feeding aid – it is also a neurotransmitter that acts on the limbic system, the brain’s emotional centre, promoting feelings of contentment, reducing anxiety and stress, and even making mammals monogamous. A University of Maryland study of male prairie voles showed that oxytocin encouraged monogamous behaviour in the usually promiscuous creatures. New research from the University of California suggests that it has a similarly civilising effect on human males, making them more affectionate and better at forming relationships. Unfortunately, along with serotonin, it is also one of the chemicals responsible for sending men to sleep soon after any bedroom activities.
- Paul Zak – a scientist at Claremont Graduate University in California, has been studying the extent of oxytocin’s potentially vast societal benefits. He believes it
is the ‘moral molecule’ that helps foster trust, reciprocity, affection, empathy and love; a social glue that keeps society together. In a classic laboratory-based trust game, involving two strangers lending each other money, Zak discovered that trusting someone, who then shows trust in return, releases oxytocin in both parties’ brains, which in turn stimulates feelings of generosity and more trusting behaviour.
- Men and women have the same levels of oxytocin, but testosterone can get in the way. In one of his ‘vampire tests’ at a recent wedding of a volunteer couple in Devon,scientists extracted blood samples from the bride, groom, close family and various friends in attendance, before and after the wedding vows. He found that the ceremony caused oxytocin to spike in the guests in direct proportion to the likely intensity of their emotional engagement in the event: the bride recorded the highest increase, followed by her mother, then other close family members, then friends. Only the groom bucked the trend – his testosterone levels were also surging – to double their pre-vow levels, in fact – suppressing the oxytocin. There is evidence that men with higher testosterone levels tend to marry less often, be more abusive in their marriage, and divorce more regularly. But the reverse can also be true: when a man holds his baby, levels of testosterone go down and oxytocin levels increase.
- Artificial oxytocin has been manufactured to harness the many medical benefits of the hormone. Synthetic oxytocin, also called Pitocin or Syntocinon, is now often used to induce labour, to reduce the risk of post-birth haemorrhage and to help new mothers who have trouble with producing milk and breast-feeding. The hormone might even help in the treatment of addiction to various drugs, including cocaine, heroin and alcohol, as there is evidence that it stops users building up a tolerance
to these substances, and also reduces withdrawal symptoms from them. Most oxytocin contained within current preparations has been synthesized.
- We can blame stress, and our mothers, when we fail to act kindly. Chronic stress hinders the natural production of oxytocin, and there is evidence that the oxytocin receptors in rats’ brains tend to atrophy when maternal nurturing is insufficient. Reduced oxytocin has been found in the brains of adult survivors of abuse: women who had been abused in childhood tended not to release oxytocin when prompted by signals in laboratory trust ‘games’. Around five per cent of people are estimated to be completely immune to the positive effects of oxytocin; they display some of the traits of psychopaths.
- The less clinical, more social feel-good effects of oxytocin are, of course, of interest to big business, which could, theoretically, manipulate oxytocin to boost trust in brands. Companies are already bottling it: you can find 30ml of oxytocin for sale for about £38 on Amazon, and there’s a brand called OxyTrust aimed at salespeople and single men, for about £35, that markets itself as a ‘trust-enhancing’ spray.
- Single men and salespeople aside, those with autism and Asperger’s syndrome – who, research has shown, often have an abnormally low level of oxytocin in their blood – could benefit from
the hormone. A French government centre for neuroscientific research recently found that patients with high-functioning autism (defined as those of normal or above-normal intelligence) who inhaled the nasal spray temporarily became more sociable and trusting, used more eye contact and were more cooperative.
- So are there any negative aspects to this apparent miracle hormone? Potentially, yes. Carsten de Dreu, a psychology professor at the University of Amsterdam, believes the positive social effects of oxytocin – promoting generosity and reciprocity – are strictly limited to ‘in-group’ members, and have no effect on behaviour towards ‘out-group’ members. In other words, it encourages kindness and cooperation only towards those we deem as similar to ourselves.
- While having sex and giving birth both release oxytocin, you can also stimulate your levels while keeping your clothes on. Scientists recommend hugging a minimum of eight times a day, stroking pets, having a massage and watching soppy films. Dancing, meditating and making music, particularly in the company of others, are highly effective too. Roller-coaster rides also, improbably, send oxytocin levels soaring, and contrary to concerns that social media is isolating and destructive, using Twitter and Facebook has oxytocin-boosting effects to rival face-to-face interaction.