Happy Valentine’s Day, ceiling fans! In the spirit of a holiday blazoned with romance, I thought it best to provide a post on an essential hormone we produce that not only makes you feel all kinds of rosy inside, but is a cornerstone to our health and happiness as well, especially when it comes to relationships.
As the title of this post lends itself, I’m referring to oxytocin. Although not widely known or commonly talked about in the mainstream media, significant amounts of research have highlighted its many benefits in our body, including recent implications in weight loss.
So, let’s get to it, shall we?
In mammals, oxytocin is a hormone released from the pituitary gland to trigger muscle contractions during labor and delivery and to release milk during lactation. While these are its principal responsibilities, oxytocin also functions as a neuropeptide, which is a small compound that acts locally within the brain on a specific pathway. The particular pathway oxytocin interacts with is the reward and reinforcement system fueled by the neurotransmitter dopamine. This is part of the same neurocircuitry that recreational drugs, like cocaine and heroine, act upon to evoke sensations of euphoria and addiction – both of which are also common emotions felt on the rollercoaster ride of romantic relationships.
Research has shown that a female prairie vole promptly becomes attached to the nearest male suitor when her brain is suffused with oxytocin, ultimately leading to her choice in a monogamous pair bonding that will last for her entire life. The same type of behavior can be observed in humans; during intercourse, surges of oxytocin are released, which help establish a deeper connection and attachment to one’s partner, even if you weren’t necessarily interested in them prior to having sex. (I think everyone’s twenties should be starting to make a little more sense to them right now). Further, dopamine receptors light up when looking at pictures of a loved one.
Similarly, in male prairie voles, a hormone called vasopressin, which is intimately related to oxytocin, “stimulates pair bonding, aggression towards potential rivals, and paternal instincts, such as grooming offspring in the nest.”1 In fact, a gene that regulates vasopressin receptors in the brain determines the likelihood of a male bonding with a female vole.
Correspondingly, in humans, this same gene (AVPR1A) is linked to one’s ability to bond and have a healthy, fulfilling relationship. Mutational variants in this gene result in men being twice as likely to remain unmarried. On top of this, those men who are married and have a polymorphism of this gene are twice as likely to report crises in their marriages and have spouses who are dissatisfied, in comparison to men who carry an intact version of this gene.
I bet there would have been a lot more funding for the Human Genome Project had it been known that genetic screenings for a good husband may exist.
Aside from its heavy influence on bonding abilities, oxytocin also plays a big role in one’s ability to trust. Trust permeates everything in our world – from our choices in political candidates, business transactions, social attachments, and even our sense that our daily life and universe are unfolding as they should. A double-blind placebo-controlled study was conducted to administer nasal spray containing oxytocin to participants in a role-playing game. Participants played the role of either an investor or trustee, investing money to a trustee who could either take all of their investment and run, or split half of it with the investor – the latter resulting in a higher yield for both parties. Those who were administered oxytocin contributed a significantly higher amount of monetary investment than those who received a placebo, exhibiting a greater level of trust in others when participating in risk-taking behavior. If there are any hedge fund managers browsing this website, linking up with a biochemist may be in your best interest!
Back to bonding, have any of you ever noticed that you involuntarily lost weight at the beginning of falling in love with someone?
Or maybe you maintained your weight or even shed a few pounds despite overindulging on a romantic vacation? Well, oxytocin was to thank. In the past few years, new studies performed on obese rats have shown the link between oxytocin and weight loss. The obese rats, independent of the types of diets they were on, reduced their food intake and sustained consistent weight loss when administered regular doses of oxytocin. This occurred in spite of no energy expenditure (exercise) on the rat’s behalf, to boot. Moreover, the rats that were obese as a result of their genes (meaning they were leptin-resistant), lost as much weight as the rats who were obese as a result of force-feeding. This shows that oxytocin may circumvent leptin resistance, a growing problem in our society, proving to be a possible effective treatment in genetically inherited metabolic syndromes like type II diabetes and obesity.
So, how can one boost their oxytocin production? Here are some easy and natural ways:
- Physical Contact – this is a biggie! Hug, kiss, hold hands, snuggle, have sex – you get it.
- Be Charitable – Do something nice for someone who needs it. Take your friend out to dinner or give belongings that mean something to you away to charity. These acts all trigger a cascade of reactions in your brain that help facilitate oxytocin release.
- Walk! – Research has shown that taking a walk is more beneficial and health-boosting than running and working out for some individuals. More importantly, get outdoors and smell the fresh air. Walking meetings have grown in popularity in the corporate world, and it seems like this may be a great way to establish a relationship with a client.
- Listen to soothing music
- Indulge in comfort food – and don’t think twice about it. Even better, share it with someone.
- Surround yourself with animals and pet them – this is my favorite. Whenever I hear my dog snorting her way up the stairs to my room, I instantly feel warm inside. Therapy dogs are frequently taken to hospitals and nursing homes for the numerous health benefits they provide.
- Sing and dance
- Say, “I love you” out loud to someone you care about. No texts.
- Deep breathing, yoga, and meditation
- I also heard that clicking the “like” button on this blog post boosts your oxytocin levels, so you can test it out here. 😉
Of course oxytocin is not the only factor, or hormone for that matter, involved in love. But, it’s an interesting component! As you know, we are primal beings. Chances are back when we were cavemen, those who had healthy oxytocin function bonded and created strong nuclear families, which helped propel them through harsh conditions to survive and evolve. There was no match.com or “types” one was attracted to back then; there were simply primal attractions and a need to procreate, preferably with one worthy and healthy mate.
So, the next time you have an indescribable connection with someone, or witness the effortlessness with which some couples interact, hopefully after reading this post you’ll have a newfound understanding of what having “chemistry” really means. It is, in essence, good chemistry.
Thanks again for reading!
…And a very happy one to my blue-eyed valentine <3
- Young, L.J. Love: Neuroscience reveals all. Nature, 2009, 457, 148.
- Blevins, J.E.; Ho, J.M. Role of oxytocin signaling in the regulation of body weight. Reviews in Endocrine and Metabolic Disorders, 2013, 14, 311-329.
- De Boer, A.; Van Buel, E.M.; Ter Horst, G.J. Love is more than just a kiss: A neurobiological perspective on love and affection. Neuroscience, 2012, 201, 114-124.
- Kosfeld, M.; Heinrichs, M.; Zak, P.J.; Fischbacher, U.; Fehr, E. Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature, 2005, 435, 673.
- Morton, G.J.; Thatcher, B.J.; Reidelberger, R.D.; Ogimoto, K; Wolden-Hanson, T.; Baskin, D.G.; Schwartz, M.W.; Blevins, J.E. Peripheral oxytocin suppresses food intake and causes weight loss in diet-induced obese rats. American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism, 2012, 302, E134-E144.
- Scheelea, D.; Willea, A.; Kendrick, K.M.; Stoffel-Wagnerd, B.; Becker, B.; Gunturkune, O.; Maiera, W.; Hurlemanna, R. Oxytocin enhances brain reward system responses in men viewing the face of their female partner. PNAS, 2013, 110, 20308-20313