How does oxytocin work?
Oxytocin is something scientists call a neurotransmitter, which is essentially a chemical that travels through our brain and body and unlocks different functions by binding to specific receptors. Both women and men produce oxytocin. In fact, it’s a hormone we share with all mammals.
Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus - a tiny region located deep at the base of the brain - and then released into the body by the nearby pituitary gland. Together with two other hormones - serotonin and dopamine - oxytocin makes up the triad of “happy hormones”.
Oxytocin is responsible for some of humanity’s most admirable traits, such as love, empathy, loyalty, trust, and courage. This is because it promotes social bonding, be it between a couple, parent and child, between friends or colleagues. In one study, for example, participants who inhaled oxytocin were 80% more generous and more altruistic when they were asked to split money with strangers.
Interestingly, oxytocin is also observed to be able to boost social memories. According to one study, for example, oxytocin amplified men's early fond memories of their mothers. All in all, oxytocin is all about strengthening bonds with others and making social activities more pleasurable and meaningful.
In terms of its effects on the human body, oxytocin has the ability to decrease stress, anxiety, and promote overall psychological stability. In a previous article, we even discussed the hormone’s potential for promoting weight loss. Oxytocin is traditionally used as a pain killer during and after labor. However, studies suggest that it may also be beneficial for treating developmental and psychiatric conditions that affect one’s social interactions, such as autism.
In recent years, it was even experimentally used to treat alcohol and substance abuse, depression, and phobias. Finally, oxytocin can also promote sleep, according to a 2003 study, but only under stress-free conditions. Given all the benefits, you may be asking yourself. Is there a way you can boost your oxytocin levels? Yes, there are, and most of the ways are quite fun, too!
1. Oxytocin and Parenting
One of the first ways in which scientists have learned about oxytocin was through observing mothers and babies. Doctors now know that oxytocin is released in especially high amounts in women during childbirth and breastfeeding. According to studies, mothers with more oxytocin touch, sing, and speak to their babies more. They also groom and check on their babies more than mothers with lower oxytocin levels.
But mothers aren’t the only ones experiencing a surge of oxytocin. The fathers and the babies themselves also produce more of the hormone. Interestingly, not only biological parents but also adoptive parents have higher oxytocin levels while caring for their adopted children.
Hence, spending time with children and grandchildren will help keep those oxytocin levels high. Hugging, kissing, and playing with kids are known to increase oxytocin levels. However, even when this isn’t possible, sharing your feelings with your family, offering to help, or simply listening to them is a very effective way to increase oxytocin levels.
2. Oxytocin and Romantic Love
Another situation in which oxytocin levels spike dramatically is the beginning of a romantic relationship. A 2012 study found, for example, that couples in the first stages of a relationship have higher levels of oxytocin than single people. But young love isn’t the only time lovers experience the effects of the love hormone.
Oxytocin is also released during sexual activity and is known to enhance the pleasure both partners experience during intercourse. Those partners who have high oxytocin levels also experience more trust, compassion, communicate more, and feel more connected to their partners overall.
Engaging in pleasurable activities with your partner, be it a romantic dinner date, a massage, or just cuddling up in front of the TV will all boost your oxytocin levels, as does any physical touch and sexual activity itself.
3. Spending Time with Friends
As we already discussed, oxytocin is involved in any pleasant social interaction. This includes spending time with your pals. It doesn’t matter if you’re making specific plans, having a heart-to-heart conversation, or just hanging out. Simply being around people you like and trust will help you feel less stressed and more confident - it’s all oxytocin at work.
4. Listening to Music
Do you enjoy listening to music? Even though people’s musical tastes may vary greatly, most of us do enjoy listening to music. There are several studies that show how music can boost one’s oxytocin levels and make you feel more energized and relaxed.
In a fascinating 2009 study, researchers compared open-heart surgery patients on bed rest. Those who listened to music had higher oxytocin levels and felt more relaxed than those who didn’t. Playing music also has an oxytocin-boosting effect. According to studies, singers experience a boost of oxytocin after a singing lesson. Jazz players, on the other hand, have higher oxytocin levels while improvising, which is not coincidental, since improvisation requires more cooperation and communication between players.
5. Meditation and Yoga
We all know by now that meditation and yoga are very beneficial for our physical and mental well-being. But research suggests that these two practices are also able to increase oxytocin production. There’s even a specific kind of meditation called compassion meditation (or loving-kindness meditation) that is directed at garnering love, compassion, and care.
When engaging in this meditation, one focuses on sending thoughts of compassion, peace, and wellness to a specific person or a group of people. That said, any type of yoga or meditation will help you achieve similar results. If you want to get started, choose one of these guides:
6. Cook and eat together
Do you love going out to dinner with your friends and loved ones? Or maybe you enjoy cooking with or for your partner? If so, know that this is not a coincidence. As a matter of fact, cooking and eating together as a means of social bonding is just the way humans are wired. And not only humans, too.
There’s some interesting research on chimpanzees suggesting that sharing food with others boosts oxytocin. The same process also happens in humans, which is why we instinctively feel closer to a person with whom we've shared a meal. So, as an exercise of connecting and garnering trust and a way to boost your oxytocin levels, try preparing or simply sharing meals with others.
7. Cuddle up with a pet
Given the unusual circumstances of 2020 and 2021, meeting others has become a luxury for many. But you know who never leaves your side and are always happy to offer you an oxytocin boost? Your pets, of course! Research points out that petting a dog gives both you and the dog an oxytocin boost. Although there’s no research to support those claims with other pets, we’re sure that the calm, warm, and cozy feeling you get when you’re cuddling with a cat or even stroking a horse is not very different.
8. Watch an emotional movie
Do you necessarily need another person or animal around you to experience the benefits of oxytocin? Well, not quite, as the very feeling of empathy towards others can actually increase your oxytocin levels as well. One scientific article mentioned, for example, that watching emotional videos can raise one’s oxytocin levels. The researchers suggest that the very experience of putting ourselves in other people’s shoes can increase our oxytocin levels.
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