Often called the "trust hormone", oxytocin is increasingly being seen as a brain chemical that does far more than just bring couples closer together.
New research is suggesting that this important hormone plays a crucial part in enabling us to not just forge and strengthen our social relations, but in helping us to stave off a number of psychological and physiological problems as well. But more conceptually, oxytocin is proving to be a crucial ingredient to what makes us human. Here are ten reasons why this little molecule is simply the most incredible molecule on the planet:
1. It's easy to get
One of the neat things about oxytocin is that you can get your fix anywhere and at any time. All you need to do is simply hug someone or shake their hand. The simple act of bodily contact will cause your brain to release low levels of the hormone — both in yourself and in the person you're touching. It's a near-instantaneous way to establish trust. And the good news is that the effect lingers afterward. There's even evidence that simply gazing at someone will do the trick — or even just thinking about them. And you shouldn't feel limited by the human species; it also helps to hug and play with your pets. And for those who can't produce enough of this hormone on their own, or who feel they could use a boost, the molecule can be easily synthesized and administered as a drug.
2. A love potion that's built right in
Often referred to as the "love molecule", oxytocin is typically associated with helping couples establish a greater sense of intimacy and attachment. This hormone, along with dopamine and norepinephrine, are believed to be highly critical in human pair-bonding. But not only that, it also increases the desire for couples to gaze at one another, it creates sexual arousal, and it helps males maintain their erections. When you're sexually aroused or excited, levels of this hormone increase in your brain significantly — a primary factor for bringing about an orgasm. And during the orgasm itself, the brain is flooded with this molecule — a possible explanation for why (some) couples like to cuddle after.
3. It helps
mom to be mom and dad to be dad
But oxytocin isn't just limited to helping couples come together — it's an indispensable part of childbirth and mother-child bonding. This important hormone helps women get through labour by stimulating uterine contractions, which is why it's sometimes administered (as Pitocin) during labor. It's been known to promote delivery and speed up contractions. After birth, mothers can establish intimacy and trust with their baby through gentle touches and even a loving gaze. In addition, mothers can pass on this molecule to their babies through breast milk. And it's worth noting that fathers can reap the benefits of the hormone as well; new dads who are given a whiff of it in nasal spray are more likely to encourage their children to explore during playtime and are less likely to be hostile.
4. Reduces social fears
Given its ability to break-down social barriers, induce feelings of optimism, increase self-esteem, and build trust, oxytocin is increasingly being seen as something that can help people overcome their social inhibitions and fears. Studies are showing that it may be effective in treating debilitating shyness, or to help people with social anxieties and mood disorders. It's also thought that this hormone could help people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. In addition, given that autism is essentially a social communication disorder, it's being considered as a way of helping people on the spectrum as well. And lastly, this little molecule, through its trust-building actions, can help heal the wounds of a damaged relationship — another example of how the mind gets its plasticity.
5. Healing and pain relief
Amazingly, oxytocin can also be used to heal wounds (through its anti-inflammatory properties). Studies have also shown that a rise in levels of this hormone can relieve pain — everything from headaches, cramps and overall body aches. Now, that being said, the trick is to get some of this hormone while you're in pain — which is not so easy. This is where synthetics can certainly help. Alternately, if you find yourself in physical discomfort, you could always ask your partner for a roll in the hay. So guys, be sure to use this crucial information the next time your significant other declines your advances and tells you she has a headache.
6. A diet aid
Perhaps surprisingly, oxytocin can also be used to prevent obesity in some instances. Researchers have observed that mice that are deficient in this hormone and also deficient in receptors for it become obese later in life — with normal food intake. Scientists believe that the hormone might be responsible for a series of beneficial metabolic effects, both in mice and humans. Moreover, by giving obese mice infusions of this hormone, their weight returned back to normal levels. The mice also showed a reduced glucose intolerance and insulin resistance. This clearly suggests an alternative option for those struggling to keep the weight off.
7. An antidepressant
Oxytocin was first observed to have a connection to depression through its effects on mothers suffering from postpartum syndrome. Researchers found that some new mothers were dealing with depression on account of low levels of this critical hormone. In fact, they were able to predict postpartum during the pregnancy if the expectant mother had low levels of the molecule. Recent studies of blood levels and genetic factors in depressed patients have revealed the potential for treating people with clinical depression, and even anxiety disorders.
8. Stress relief
Not surprisingly, given its ability to alleviate social anxiety and produce feelings of trust, oxytocin has the peripheral ability to reduce stress — which is no small thing when you consider the toll that stress takes on the body. This hormone has been observed to reduce cortisol in the body and lower blood pressure. It's also been known to improve digestion, which is often disturbed by high stress levels. Interestingly, this hormone and the receptors for it have been found in the intestinal tract; it improves gut motility and decreases intestinal inflammation.
9. Increases generosity
In what could be seen as either a good or bad thing, oxytocin has been observed to increase generosity in humans. Evolutionary biologists, particularly those who subscribe to the selfish gene theory, have long struggled to understand why people sometimes share or give away things — often at a personal cost. But several lines of research have connected this hormone to feelings of empathy. In one study that required persons to share money with a stranger, infusions of oxytocin were shown to make some subjects as much as 80% (wow!) more generous than those on a placebo.
10. It's what makes us human
In other words, all the above. It's clear that we really wouldn't be human without it — we would simply lack the ability to be the social, caring species that we are. Now, it should be noted, however, that, while oxytocin increases in-group trust, it produces the opposite feeling for those in the out-group — so it's not the "perfect drug" some might proclaim it to be. That being said, oxytocin plays a crucial role in forging our ability to spark and maintain relationships, while endowing us with the ability to empathize, trust, and even love one another. Without it, we would be something significantly less than what we are.
So what are you waiting for? Go out and hug someone!
Source: This article has been reprinted from an article by George Dvorsky at this site. It has been modified slightly.
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