Oxytocin – Why All the Excitement?

Oxytocin - Why All the Excitement?

The hormone oxytocin is getting a lot of attention in the popular media as the “love hormone”. Much of this has been about oxytocin’s reputation for making people more social, generous, trusting, and loving.

According to researcher, Shelley E. Taylor, PhD, director of the University of California, Los Angeles Social Neuroscience Lab, “Oxytocin is developing a reputation of being the sort of thing you’d want to dump in someone’s coffee in the morning to make them soft and nice and fuzzy and good to you.”

She further adds, “That’s just not the case. Oxytocin is much more complex than that.” Dr. Shelley is of the opinion that it’s important to put most findings about oxytocin in context.

Her view is very important given the several promises oxytocin has thus far shown and the fact that the media tends to seize on such findings to confer overblown labels on them.

What Exactly is Oxytocin?

Oxytocin is a hormone and a neurotransmitter that plays significant physiological and psychological roles in human well-being.

From a medical perspective, oxytocin is a neuropeptide – a protein-like molecule. This means that it is a short chain polypeptide that the brain uses as neurotransmitters for brain cells to communicate with one another.

Also, oxytocin is a hormone, which is simply saying that the brain releases it into the bloodstream to communicate with the body.

A brain structure called the hypothalamus is what produces the oxytocin in the body. From there, it moves to other parts of the brain and spinal cord as well as to the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is a pea-sized structure, located at the base of the brain.

The pituitary gland is what releases oxytocin into the bloodstream. Like little antennas picking up a signal, “oxytocin receptors” which are found on cells in the brain as well as the rest of the body help to distribute it.

Both boys and girls can produce oxytocin. However, when the production of oxytocin starts to decline in the human body is yet unknown. For obvious reasons, females tend to have higher levels of oxytocin than males.

Importance of Oxytocin

Oxytocin plays a crucial role in our lives as it has a wide variety of physical and psychological effects in both men and women. It’s also known as the “love hormone” or “cuddle hormone.” This association is because of how it enhances romance and friendship.

Likewise, oxytocin and its receptors play roles in a plethora of social cognition and behavior. These range from mother-infant bonding and romantic to group-related attitudes and prejudice.

Childbirth and Breastfeeding

Oxytocin - Smiling mother breastfeeding baby

Amongst its many physiological functions are the roles it plays in female reproductive functions. Oxytocin is a major facilitator of childbirth and breastfeeding as the body releases it in significant amounts during and after childbirth.

There is a large increase in the amount of oxytocin during labor and helps to increase uterine motility. The reflect secretion of oxytocin also affects the letdown reflex and uterine contractions.[1]

The body also releases a lot more oxytocin as the cervix and vagina start to widen for labor. After delivery, it is still oxytocin that helps to shrink the uterus and also to control bleeding.

Oxytocin is also crucial for breastfeeding. Nipple stimulation during breastfeeding sends a signal via the spinal cord to the hypothalamus. This results in the release of oxytocin which causes the forceful letdown reflex that allows for the release of milk from the mammary glands. Therefore, oxytocin helps new mothers bond with and breastfeed their new babies.

Pro-Sociality

Socially, oxytocin helps in the forging of connections with other people. It helps to make us feel happy, reduces stress, and triggers protective instincts. The body releases oxytocin during a warm hug, a grasped hand, or during a loving gaze.

A 2008 study found that regular and repeated warm touches enhance oxytocin activity. This helped to lower stress hormone levels for couples that participated in the study. It also helped to lower blood pressure for the men.[2]

Also, a study reported that oxytocin could specifically affect an individual’s willingness to accept social risks arising from interpersonal interactions. The participants who they gave oxytocin exhibited more trusting behavior.[3]

Oxytocin and Love

Oxytocin Effect - Happy friends sharing a funny moment

The moniker of oxytocin as the “love hormone” probably holds a lot of merit. This is because the release of oxytocin into certain parts of the brain can affect the emotions of an individual. Increased oxytocin secretion can also affect overall cognitive and social behaviors.

Oxytocin triggers feelings of love and protection and is what gives you those fuzzy feelings. Remember those fuzzy feelings you get when you hug a friend, snuggle with or kiss your partner, or gaze into their eyes. That’s oxytocin at work for you!

You also get the oxytocin effect when you engage in socially bonding activities. Interestingly, even such affectionate things like playing with a puppy can give you an oxytocin surge. Now you have a good reason to get one!

In 2012, researchers studied the effect of oxytocin during the initial stages of being in a romantic attachment.[4] They discovered that the oxytocin level among the new lovers did not decrease after a six-months period. The couples also showed high individual stability in oxytocin levels. This in contrast to other unattached participants.

Sexual activity also causes a release of oxytocin and the love hormone also has links to the intensity of orgasms. Despite the belief that oxytocin plays a role in erection and orgasm, there is however no definitive evidence for this. Some researchers posit that oxytocin facilitates smooth muscle contraction of the reproductive tract of men and women during orgasm.[5]

The Oxytocin Paradox

Angry couple backing one another

Despite the numerous initial positive effects of oxytocin, more recent studies have pointed to a potential “dark side” as well. Some of these troubling oxytocin effects show that it can have a range of different effects, on different people, under different circumstances.[6]

Indications coming from most of these newer researches is that oxytocin “may ultimately turn out to be a ‘double-edged sword‘ – capable of ‘promoting bonds with familiar individuals, but promoting unfriendly behavior towards strangers.'”[6]

In-Group Favoritism

From several of these newer researches, the role oxytocin plays in behavior, and its potential connections to psychology apparently extends beyond being loving and prosocial. Current evidence shows that oxytocin can also create barriers between people.

In a 2011 research, Dutch students who the researchers gave snorts of oxytocin become more positive about fictional Dutch characters. However, the researchers reported that the Dutch students also become negative about characters with Arab or German names.[7]

The research results suggest that oxytocin motivates in-group favoritism which contributes to the development of intergroup bias. Unfortunately, this can lead to preferential treatment of in-group over out-group members. Thus, high levels of oxytocin could lead to aggression and prejudice.

Group-Serving Dishonesty

There are also links existing between oxytocin and feelings of envy and dishonesty. In a 2014 study, researchers found that participants who they gave oxytocin were more likely to lie for the benefit of others in the same group.

In this regard, the study found that:

Compared with participants receiving placebo, participants receiving oxytocin lied more to benefit their groups, did so quicker, and did so without expectation of reciprocal dishonesty from their group members. A control setting ruled out that oxytocin drives self-serving dishonesty. These findings support the functional approach to morality and reveal the underlying biological circuitries associated with group-serving dishonesty.[8]

Relationship Partners’ Investment

Oxytocin also appears to serve dual roles in relationship attachment tendencies. For instance, with spouses in a relationship, Andreas Aarseth Kristoffersen, a research assistant in NTNU’s Department of psychology, points out that:

When people notice that their partner is showing less interest in their relationship than they are, the level of this relationship-building hormone increases.[9]

In the 2017 research carried out by Andreas and his colleagues, they found that the partners who had invested more in the relationship released more oxytocin when they thought about their relationship situation. This was in contrast to the partners who had invested less.

Aarseth Kristoffersen noted that:

It’s seems contradictory that you would release more oxytocin both when things are going well and when they’re not, but that’s how it is.

Another member of the research team, Professor Steven W. Gangestad commented that:

The idea behind the prediction was that oxytocin might promote attention and motivation toward the relationship when it was both important and threatened.

Professor Gangestad further suggested that:

What’s implied here is a statement about what oxytocin is doing: It’s perhaps fostering attention to and motivation to “take care of” the relationship.

From the above studies and others, it is thus obvious that the action of oxytocin is not that straightforward.

These and other negative effects of oxytocin goes to show that the “administration of oxytocin can influence subjective preferences.” These results also “support the view that oxytocin’s effects on social behavior are context dependent.”[10]

In Conclusion

Little black and white puppy on throw pillow

Despite these new findings, oxytocin has developed a reputation as the “love hormone” owing to a strong literature base supporting its role in pair bonding and motherhood.

There is also no doubt that oxytocin has a strong link with the development of trust, empathy, and pro-sociality. Yet, these tendencies have recently been shown to have a limit that is just within an individual’s in-group..

Thus, whether oxytocin helps with the formation of social memories – make you feel cuddly or suspicious of others – depends to a large extent on the environment. As a result, an increase in oxytocin may strengthen previous associations, whether they were good or bad.

An increase in oxytocin is therefore not necessarily a “bad” or “good” thing as it will most likely interact with other situational environments and various other unclear individual factors such as brain structure.

In summary, the latest research on oxytocin by Noa Eren and his colleagues has this to say as a final word:

Our work shows [that oxytocin] does not improve sociability across the board. Its effects depend on both context and personality.[11]