Love Hormone Or Party Drug? Oxytocin Myths Busted
Oxytocin is a hormone that has been used in labor and delivery for decades, but people are starting to see its wide range of benefits. Commonly called “the cuddle chemical” or “love hormone,” oxytocin is talked about online, at parties, and between partners. Can this powerful hormone spice up your sex life, increase social bonding, and help you lose weight?
Another drug, the potentially dangerous street drug MDMA, also causes pro-social behaviors. Like oxytocin, “Molly” causes users to feel strongly connected to each other. In the user’s mind, it emphasizes the positives in relationships and minimizes the negatives. Users feel more accepted and loved, which is truly an addictive feeling. MDMA stimulates the release of oxytocin, a hormone known to enhance social bonding.
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When users took MDMA in various doses and oxytocin on separate occasions, their blood oxytocin levels increased. But, users who took oxytocin did not feel the optimistic, loving, and playful emotions that users taking MDMA reported. Experts conclude that oxytocin release, while present, does not account for the full experience of taking MDMA.
What else do we know about what oxytocin can and cannot do?
Oxytocin is a hormone and neurotransmitter. Hormones are released from one organ in the body and can affect any organ with a receptor for them. Testosterone and estrogen are also hormones.
Neurotransmitters are chemicals released in the brain that affect other brain circuits. The hypothalamus, a brain structure that regulates almost everything in your body that you don’t consciously control, produces oxytocin, which is then secreted into the bloodstream by the pituitary, a multifunction gland known as the “master gland” because of its far-reaching effects on the body. Unlike many other hormones, oxytocin stimulates more oxytocin release. This positive feedback loop allows labor to progress without stopping.
Oxytocin is best known for its role in the female reproductive system. It
- Enhances sexual activity.
- Stimulates uterine contractions for childbirth.
- Fosters maternal bonding.
- Facilitates the milk let-down response for nursing.
Besides these critical functions, oxytocin is involved in:
- Hunger and craving
- Sexual arousal
- Romantic attachments
- Testosterone production
Love And Relationships
Oxytocin levels are higher when you start a new romantic relationship. Oxytocin may be responsible for the fluttery, excited feeling you get with a new relationship. When researchers measured oxytocin levels in 120 young adults in the throes of a new relationship and 43 young adults who were single or looking, oxytocin levels were higher in people in new relationships.
When romantic partners returned for a follow-up six months later, their oxytocin levels were still elevated.
Pregnancy And Childbirth
Synthetic oxytocin, called Pitocin, has long been used to cause uterine contractions to speed up labor for people who are having difficulty starting or continuing the childbirth process.
Natural oxytocin increases gradually throughout pregnancy. Oxytocin pulses increase in frequency and amount during labor through a positive feedback loop. As oxytocin levels continue to rise and childbirth occurs, oxytocin promotes the delivery of the placenta, prevents excessive uterine bleeding, and facilitates the process of maternal-child bonding.
Oxytocin has effects on men as well. While it intensifies orgasm and feelings of satisfaction with sex in all people, oxytocin supports penile erection and ejaculation as well.
With ejaculation, there is a burst of oxytocin from the male pituitary gland. Oxytocin stimulates contractions throughout the male reproductive tract, making it easier for sperm to travel and be released.
Oxytocin also plays a role in modulating testosterone levels by stimulating the conversion of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone.
Oxytocin increases social bonding, but it may depend on the context. Oxytocin promotes feelings of trust and social bonding, but these feelings may only extend to members of your in-group. It may promote feelings of mistrust toward people who are not in your group, the out-group.
Another study tested whether oxytocin nasal spray would increase social cooperation, generosity, and empathy. Researchers found that increased oxytocin was associated with increased charity towards both an in-group and an out-group of refugees.
Another study supported these findings. Adult male volunteers expressed increased emotional empathy and learning after using oxytocin nasal spray.
Appetite And Metabolism
Oxytocin has calming effects, which can reduce cravings, whether for drugs or sweets. Oxytocin interacts with the dopamine pathway in the brain. This pathway is known as the reward pathway because it causes cravings for things the brain finds pleasurable.
In a randomized, double-blind, crossover study (the best type of scientific study to rule out other potential contributors to the result), researchers found that a single dose of oxytocin nasal spray caused men to reduce calorie intake for a single meal by 122 kcal, which could add up to more than 37 pounds over a year.
Oxytocin is also involved in energy use. A small study evaluating whether people who used oxytocin nasal spray burned more calories and lost weight showed an average weight loss of nearly 20 pounds over eight weeks. A larger, better-controlled study is needed to verify these impressive results.
Oxytocin can’t fix a relationship or change how you feel about someone. Oxytocin may amplify your feelings, but it can’t change them. If you are involved in a positive relationship, oxytocin promotes feelings of affection and social bonding. On the other hand, in situations that you may interpret as negative, oxytocin can also amplify that feeling, contributing to “in” groups and “out” groups.
While oxytocin may help you modulate your appetite and reduce cravings, it is not an appetite suppressant, nor will it cause weight loss.
Though the research is early in terms of oxytocin use for weight loss and social bonding, it undeniably has a huge impact on your brain—fostering feelings of social connectedness, establishing and maintaining relationships with your partner and children, reducing anxiety and cravings, and modulating appetite for successful weight loss.
You can naturally increase your oxytocin levels by engaging in activities known to trigger its release, such as
- Physical contact—cuddling, hugging, kissing, massaging, and holding hands
- Social bonding—eye gaze, conversation, laughing
- Sex—orgasm, touch, erection, and ejaculation
In addition to natural oxytocin release, you can enhance oxytocin release as part of the body composition treatment plan or sexual health treatment plan. Whether you plan to use oxytocin to support your weight management efforts or for stress-reducing, couple-bonding effects, consult with a doctor first to ensure that oxytocin nasal spray is a good option for you.