What Exactly is Oxytocin?

This powerful hormone has a reputation for playing cupid. But the full story is a lot more complicated. Most people know oxytocin as the hormone that’s most closely linked to our social ties—especially when it comes to love and raising children.

“We often see it discussed in relation to attachment and social-related behaviors, including empathy and bonding,” says Lily Brown, PhD, Director of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania. But it’s a lot more than a fleeting chemical high. Oxytocin is a hormone that functions as a neurotransmitter in the brain. It’s thought to be a driving force behind attraction and caregiving, and even controls key aspects of the reproductive system, childbirth, and lactation.

Oxytocin has earned the nickname “the cuddle” or “love” hormone because it’s released when people snuggle up, have sex, or bond socially—in fact, the effect is so strong, that even petting a dog has been shown to release it.1 Yet recent findings have shed new light on the effects of oxytocin, and why it may not be all kisses and hugs.2

“I would argue the phrase ‘the cuddle hormone’ is a bit of a misnomer,” Brown says. While it’s true that oxytocin enhances bonding under certain circumstances, it may also lead to jealousy, suspicion, and the formation of “in” groups and “out” groups. “It seems the effect of oxytocin depends on the situation. So, when someone is in the presence of a person who is not part of their ‘tribe’ if you will, it can actually increase negative feelings toward members of the ‘out’ group. It’s not as straightforward of an explanation as we used to think,” Brown says.

Robert C. Froemke, PhD, a neuroscientist who studies oxytocin at New York University concurs. “Oxytocin is not a ‘trust hormone’ or ‘love drug’—there’s really no such thing, biologically speaking. Oxytocin is released during social contact and gaze, mother-infant bonding and birthing, and maybe in some other cases as well,” he explains. “Most current neuroscientific studies of oxytocin indicate that oxytocin doesn’t just always make people happier or more pro-social or willing to bond. Rather, oxytocin seems to act like a volume dial, turning up and amplifying brain activity related to whatever someone is already experiencing. That’s essentially what a lot of different recent studies are converging on for oxytocin.”

How Does Oxytocin Affect the Brain?

Despite these mixed signals, oxytocin plays an undeniably important role in establishing and maintaining relationships. And it all begins in one place: the brain. Once oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus, a portion of the brain that keeps the body’s internal functions in balance, it’s secreted into the bloodstream by the pituitary gland. From there, oxytocin is directed into your spinal cord or other parts of the brain depending on its ultimate purpose.

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Released into our brains under the right circumstances, oxytocin has the power to regulate our emotional responses and pro-social behaviors, including trust, empathy, gazing, positive memories, processing of bonding cues, and positive communication.3 Thanks to oxytocin, we get a toasty, tranquil feeling whenever we’re with the people we care about. And the more we engage in these feel-good behaviors, the more oxytocin we get—you might even call it addictive.

Oxytocin is also connected to serotonin and dopamine. This trio of neurotransmitters is often referred to as the “happy hormones,” and for good reason. Under the right conditions, they work as a team to make us feel butterflies. Whenever we’re with someone who we’re attracted to or care about, our brain releases dopamine, serotonin levels increase, oxytocin is produced, and presto—you get the buzz that love songs are written about.

How Does Oxytocin Impact Relationships?

Oxytocin contributes to the parent-child bond. (It appears to have a stronger effect on mothers, but fathers are also affected.) 4 Mothers with high levels of oxytocin are more likely to be affectionate with their children, frequently checking in, touching, feeding, singing, speaking, grooming, and bathing their babies. In turn, the children receive a boost of oxytocin and learn to seek out more contact. A similar effect has been found in adoptive parents.5

Oxytocin is even thought to impact fidelity by some experts. Researchers believe that oxytocin’s influence on reward pathways creates a positive behavior loop for engaging in social and sexual contact with a reliable, monogamous partner.

What Triggers an Oxytocin Release?

For the most part, releasing oxytocin requires one thing: another person. While it’s traditionally associated with sex, breastfeeding, and childbirth, almost any form of social bonding or positive physical contact can trigger oxytocin. One study (on chimpanzees) even found that sharing a meal does the trick.6 Common triggers include:

  • Positive physical contact (cuddling, kissing, hugging, holding hands, etc.)
  • Social bonding (talking, making eye contact, laughing, etc.)
  • Sex
  • Breastfeeding
  • Childbirth

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Do Men and Women Experience Oxytocin Differently?

Women typically have higher oxytocin levels than men.7 (It’s a key hormone involved in childbirth and lactation, after all). Biological differences aside, men and women appear to experience oxytocin in many of the same ways. It facilitates bonding with children, increases romantic attachment, and plays an important role in reproduction for both sexes.

But that’s where things start to split. While the area isn’t well researched, scientists have noticed some key distinctions in how men and women process oxytocin.  For example, several studies have found that in men, oxytocin improves the ability to identify competitive relationships and navigate their fight or flight response. Women generally lack this response. Instead, oxytocin tends to increase feelings of kinship. This could be because oxytocin behaves differently in the male and female amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotion and behavior.

How Does Oxytocin Impact Mood?

One thing is for sure: “It’s not straightforward,” Brown says. While oxytocin is typically linked to warm, fuzzy feelings and shown in some research to lower stress and anxiety, that’s not always the case. Recent research makes it seem unlikely that the hormone is directly connected to relaxation or psychological stability. One study found high levels of both stress and oxytocin in rodents that were separated from their group, while another discovered higher levels of oxytocin and cortisol among women who had “gaps in their social relationships” and negative relations with their partner.8

One theory, says Brown, is that the way oxytocin impacts mood depends on our environment and the context of the emotional and social cues surrounding us. “We used to think this is the kind of hormone that always makes people feel good and happy, and that’s really not the case. It actually seems like it raises our attention to salient cues, positive or negative. I’ve seen some researchers talk about how under conditions of low stress, oxytocin can help you have a sense of well-being. But in situations of high stress, it might make it so that a person feels primed to seek out more social contacts. The way oxytocin affects you is really an interaction with your environment,” she says.

What Other Systems Rely on Oxytocin?

Oxytocin isn’t all in your head. Here are some of the additional ways it keeps our bodies running:

Sexual function. Calling oxytocin the “love” hormone is actually a PG-rated version of the scientific truth. In reality, oxytocin doesn’t just induce cuddling—it plays a crucial role in the reproductive system itself. While the exact mechanism isn’t clear, sex has been found to stimulate the release of oxytocin, which appears to intensify erection, ejaculation, and orgasms. 9 Oxytocin also causes muscle contractions in the uterus and womb, which helps move sperm along and increases the chance of pregnancy.

Childbirth. Another trigger for oxytocin? Labor. As the cervix and vagina begin to widen for childbirth, oxytocin is released and starts a familiar feeling for mothers: contractions. This helps the baby move downward and out of the birth canal.

Breastfeeding. The connection between babies and oxytocin doesn’t end there. Oxytocin stimulates the “let-down reflex” in breastfeeding, making it easier for milk to flow.

Appetite. The effects of oxytocin on eating behavior and metabolism are increasingly being put under the microscope. A recent series of studies show that oxytocin reduces activity in the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that controls hunger, and increases activity in parts of the brain associated with impulse control.10

Sleep. When increased under stress-free conditions, some research (on rats) suggests that oxytocin promotes sleep by countering the effects of cortisol, a stress hormone. However, research in this area is pretty limited.

Can You Raise Your Oxytocin Levels?

The good news: It’s relatively easy to raise your oxytocin levels—it all comes down to making social connections and bonds. You could get a massage. Listen to music. Give someone a hug. Or pet a dog (anyone will do). Influencing oxytocin levels artificially, however, is a bit more complicated. No food or over-the-counter medicines in the United States have been proven to increase oxytocin. Prescriptions are given out for one of two reasons:

#1. Childbirth.

Pitocin, typically administered as an intravenous infusion or intramuscular injection of oxytocin, has been commonly used for decades to help start and strengthen uterine contractions during labor and to reduce bleeding after delivery.

#2.Psychiatric and behavioral conditions

In recent years, oxytocin nasal sprays, available under the names Pitocin and Syntocinon, have been touted for their ability to enhance social skills and alleviate serious conditions such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as autism. However, a word of caution: They’ve largely been used in a research context, and many of these findings are still in their infancy.

“There’s been a lot of mixed findings,” says Brown. “This area has been very controversial over the past decade because there were some really promising studies coming out about oxytocin in the nineties. I don’t think it’s turned out to be as promising or as simple as we might have hoped—not to say there aren’t promising things there.”

FAQs

What triggers the release of oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a powerful hormone that functions as a neurotransmitter in the brain. While it’s traditionally associated with sex, breastfeeding, and childbirth, almost any form of social bonding or positive physical contact can trigger oxytocin. Sex has been found to stimulate the release of oxytocin, which appears to intensify erection, ejaculation, and orgasms. Labor is another trigger for oxytocin. As the cervix and vagina begin to widen for childbirth, oxytocin is released and starts contractions, which helps the baby move downward and out of the birth canal. Oxytocin also stimulates the “let-down reflex” in breastfeeding, making it easier for milk to flow.

How does oxytocin make you feel?
Oxytocin is typically linked to warm, fuzzy feelings and shown in some research to lower stress and anxiety. Oxytocin has the power to regulate our emotional responses and pro-social behaviors, including trust, empathy, gazing, positive memories, processing of bonding cues, and positive communication. Thanks to oxytocin, we get a toasty, tranquil feeling whenever we’re with the people we care about. And the more we engage in these feel-good behaviors, the more oxytocin we get—you might even call it addictive.

Do both men and women produce oxytocin?
Yep, but women typically have higher oxytocin levels than men. (It’s a key hormone involved in childbirth and lactation, after all). Biological differences aside, men and women appear to experience oxytocin in many of the same ways. It facilities bonding with children, increases romantic attachment, and plays an important role in reproduction for both sexes. However, scientists have noticed some key distinctions in how men and women process oxytocin. For example, several studies have found that in men, oxytocin improves the ability to identify competitive relationships and navigate their fight or flight response. Women generally lack this response. Instead, oxytocin tends to increase feelings of kinship. This could be because oxytocin behaves differently in the male and female amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotion and behavior.

How is oxytocin used?
The most common use of oxytocin (produced outside the body) is in Pitocin, oxytocin that’s typically administered as an intravenous infusion or intramuscular injection to help start and strengthen uterine contractions during labor and to reduce bleeding after delivery. In recent years, oxytocin nasal sprays, available under the names Pitocin and Syntocinon, have been touted for their ability to enhance social skills and alleviate serious conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and autism, though largely within a research context.

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Last Updated: Oct 16, 2020