Oxytocin might be the chemical you need to charge your connections super. Here is what you need to know about oxytocin…
What is Oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a hormone made by the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls biological functions like heart rate, body temperature, and digestion. It plays a vital role in social interactions. Oxytocin manages essential aspects of human behavior and the male and female reproductive systems, such as labor, childbirth, and lactation. Starting with the hypothalamus in the brain, the posterior pituitary gland stores and releases the hormone into the bloodstream.
Oxytocin levels play a huge role in sending chemical messages to the brain regarding important social information such as….
- parent-infant bonding
- romantic attachment
- sexual arousal
Those who have been given oxytocin experience…
What are the effects of oxytocin? What do low levels of oxytocin look like? How can you increase oxytocin levels?
Oxytocin and the Social Brain
The hormone oxytocin regulates learning from social interactions. Over the past 30 years, extensive data has increasingly pointed to the central role of oxytocin in various social behaviors. Oxytocin modulates the amygdala, enhancing social recognition, promoting social learning in healthy people, and decreasing attention to harmful and threatening social cues.
The brain pathways through which oxytocin regulates social functioning include:
- Sensory systems: We learn socially by olfactory cues, meaning that the information we gain from our noses when we pick up smells can explain the relationship between oxytocin and brain region activity, such as the olfactory bulb. While researchers have found this in rodents, there is evidence that humans also have the exact mechanism.
- Limbic circuits: The brain’s chemical oxytocin reduces fear response by decreasing activity in the amygdala, which is controlled by cells in the hypothalamus. This decreases fear behavior like freezing and enhances social recognition.
- Social learning: Chemicals oxytocin and serotonin in the brain help the brain learn from social interactions by working together in the area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens.
Source: Oxytocin and the Social Brain
Oxytocin Myths & Misconceptions
Often, oxytocin is dubbed the ‘love hormone.’ A researcher examined this claim and found many myths and gaps in the knowledge of the functions of oxytocin.
Myth #1 Oxytocin is a “female” hormone
Since the oxytocin molecule was first identified as a female reproductive hormone, it is often stereotyped as a solely female hormone. It turns out that male and female bodies create and distribute the hormone differently!
Myth #2 Oxytocin is an “anti-stress” hormone
While oxytocin is known to decrease stress hormones, adverse experiences and reactions like trauma can impact oxytocin’s anti-stress qualities. Researchers note, “The social history of an individual can alter the threshold for responding to oxytocin, vasopressin, and other stress-related molecules.”
Myth #3 Oxytocin is “the hormone of motherly love.”
While oxytocin does support physically intimate forms of nurture and sociality when it comes to acts like feeding and bonding with infants, researchers found that in genetically mutant mice, maternal care continued even with the absence of oxytocin.
Oxytocin’s Forgotten Brother: Vasopressin
Did you know oxytocin has an often overlooked brother molecule? Vasopressin was discovered in 1953, along with oxytocin! These brain chemicals work together with the immune system to ensure our biological and social functioning are in good shape. Vasopressin is very similar in chemical structure to oxytocin. They differ only by two amino acids, which can be seen in the red below.
Source: Neurotoxicity Research
Oxytocin and Vasopressin evolved from the same ancestral peptide, making them structurally and functionally interrelated. They only differ slightly in increasing and decreasing all social behaviors and biological functions.
Oxytocin increases during these social processes: social contact, partner preference formation, pair, and social bonding, relaxation, and well-being, reproduction and sexual behaviors, sensory processing, memory processes, and functions. A decrease in aggression (mainly in females), anxiety, and stress can be found when examining oxytocin in the brain and body.
Vasopressin increases during these biological and social processes: positive social behaviors, partner selection, social attachment formation, territorial behaviors (primarily in males), attraction, blood pressure, sexual behaviors, reward and limbic processing, attention, learning, memory, sympathetic and parasympathetic regulation. Decreased anxiety is found when examining vasopressin in the brain and body.
Source: Adapted from The Neurobiology of Love
Vasopressin plays a substantial role in bonding for men. Oxytocin and vasopressin are implicated in male behavior patterns such as pair bonding, sexual behavior, and fathering!
Oxytocin is called the “love drug” or “love hormone” due to its increase when people form close intimate relationships. A recent study took 71 healthy men and women and gave them nasal spray oxytocin, waited two weeks, and gave them a placebo. They wanted to see how oxytocin affected social appraisal of their own and others’ close intimate relationship characteristics such as trust and closeness. Here is what they found:
There was an oxytocin-induced increase in the positive appraisal of one’s close intimate relationship characteristics.
There was no oxytocin-induced increase in the positive appraisal of others’ close intimate relationship characteristics!
This study adds further evidence to the mediating role of oxytocin in social cognition, specifically regarding romantic relationship characteristics.
In men, oxytocin regulates various biological and social processes, such as eating behavior:
Oxytocin makes men eat less; a study found that men administered the hormone experienced a reduced caloric intake.
Oxytocin nasal spray increases testosterone levels and decreases aggressiveness.
Results from a study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that oxytocin regulates emotion processing in healthy male participants.
Researchers found that when men are introduced to new or changing social environments, oxytocin impairs their ability to adapt to changes in risk and uncertainty.
Oxytocin regulates social processes in humans, including emotions:
Oxytocin reduces attention to negative social emotions, inhibiting withdrawal-related social behavior.
Another study suggests that oxytocin enhances the processing of emotional faces!
Researchers investigating the neurobiology of aging hypothesize that oxytocin facilitates emotional recognition by improving neurotransmission in the group with the worst emotion recognition.
High levels of oxytocin are mainly found in women or people who are parents:
Researchers examined women across their lifespans and found that oxytocin levels were higher in pregnant women and women undergoing fertility treatments than in menstruating women.
Researchers noted that the menstrual cycle phases may impact oxytocin levels in women.
Parents and grandparents generally have higher levels of oxytocin.
Oxytocin is also known as the “hormone of attachment” since it plays a significant role in the development of attachment triggered by early interaction and contact between infants and their parents.
Low oxytocin levels may indicate particular conditions and decrease empathy:
People on the autism spectrum typically have lower oxytocin levels.
Researchers note that people who struggle with significantly disordered eating have low oxytocin.
Those experiencing depressive and anxiety symptoms are more likely to have low oxytocin.
A study from 2016 found that people suffering from conditions that cause low levels of oxytocin performed worse on empathy tasks.
Oxytocin and Social Cues
Oxytocin is a supporting hormone in human social cognition released in response to social cues. For example, oxytocin levels rise when you see someone you care about. When you experience social isolation for extended periods, your oxytocin levels fall.
Oxytocin is vital in promoting social behavior by increasing trust between people and reducing anxiety about personal relationships. For example, higher levels of oxytocin have been found among people who are married or in long-term relationships compared to singles.
In addition, oxytocin has been shown to increase eye gaze, which may be essential for maintaining close relationships with others. There is also evidence that oxytocin enhances memory for faces. This suggests that this hormone may help us remember people we care about.
6 Science-Backed Ways to Increase Oxytocin
The simple touch boosts oxytocin and links to our early experiences as infants bonding with our caregivers. Researchers refer to oxytocin as the “peptide that binds” since it has ties to our prosocial evolutionary dynamics as early humans. This created our tendency to display unique social behaviors like eye contact, kissing, and our capacity for social memory.
There are various ways to increase oxytocin.
Make Reciprocal eye contact
In the book The Power of Eye Contact, Michael Ellsberg recommends three easy steps:
- Briefly glance at someone, then look away
- Look at them again
- If they return your gaze, this may mean they are willing to engage
Need to be more comfortable making eye contact? There’s a social cues hack for that! Instead of looking into people’s eyes directly, look at their eyebrows; the other person and your brain won’t know the difference.
Check out our guide to making unforgettable eye contact in any situation!
Talk to the right people
Have you ever gone a long time without talking to anyone and felt sad? This is because social isolation directly links to poor mental health. Talking to people is a great way to increase oxytocin production. Here are a few quick research-backed tips to help you:
- Avoid relying on texts, emails, or instant messaging. Human speech tends to increase the level of oxytocin in the study participants’ urine. Participants were compared to people who instant message each other, and they had no oxytocin present and instead had high cortisol levels, which is a stress hormone.
- Practice the uniquely human skill of storytelling. Telling stories, whether through reading a book or by memory, is a great way to increase oxytocin production in yourself and others. A recent study found that just one storytelling event for hospitalized children increased oxytocin and decreased pain and stress!
- There’s a reason why you may feel tempted to gossip—it is related to our evolutionary survival system and social functioning. Throughout history, gossiping has established group norms, punished trespassers, developed social bonds, and regulated social influence through social systems. While a pervasive yet negative social behavior, participants who gossip vs. those that engaged in plain emotional non-gossip conversation had higher oxytocin levels.
Do you need help with starting conversations? Here are 57 killer conversation starters so you can create a conversation with anyone, anytime!
Form authentic relationships
Oxytocin links to developing and maintaining interpersonal relationships by buffering stress and enhancing emotion recognition, empathy, cooperation, and social synchrony.
Often, people talk about the importance of having friends and close relationships. However, the truth is that there are no rules that say how many friends or intimate relationships you should have, so it is essential to find the type and quantity that works for you and focus on enjoying them.
Here are some practical tips for forming and maintaining all types of relationships:
- Be honest with yourself about the kind of relationships you want.
- Don’t fake it, be your real self!
- Be clear on what you want out of a relationship
- Don’t assume that people know how you feel about them
- You don’t have to be everyone’s friend
The people who accept you for who you are will appreciate your honesty, sincerity, and openness more than anything else. Do you struggle with making friends as an adult? Check out these five easy steps that can help!
Master Your People Skills
- Create a Memorable Presence
- Communicate with Confidence
- Achieve Your Goals
Have a question about the presentation or People School? Email Science of People support.
Use social touch
When you give or receive touch, your body rewards you for making social connections, helping you become better at forming and maintaining bonds with others.
Did you know that in the United Kingdom, maternity units are required to ensure that all newborns receive skin-to-skin contact with their mothers after birth? This is our first experience with touch-inducing oxytocin. Skin-to-skin contact between parents and babies increases oxytocin and enhances the development of parent-infant relationships.
Here are two research-supported tips to help you increase oxytocin via touch.
Are you touch-deprived and feeling down? Treat yourself to a massage! A UCLA study found that compared to a control group, participants that received a massage had higher doses of oxytocin in their blood and lower levels of stress hormones.
Don’t turn it down if someone offers you a hug or a handshake! Any form of tactile stimulation can instantly increase oxytocin production.
Cuddle with a companion
Researchers have found that touch can act as a barrier, “buffering” the negative health outcomes associated with stress.
Cuddling and huddling are evolutionary social processes that regulate our body temperatures and increase oxytocin production. Cuddling helps us stay warm on the outside and inside!
Grab your cat or dog if you don’t have a human to cuddle with. Cat ladies had their oxytocin levels examined after interacting with their cat companions. When the cat owners were approached by their cats and engaged in positive petting interactions, their oxytocin levels rose!
Did you know exercising causes your body to increase the love hormone oxytocin? Researchers had 96 people run a footrace, measured the oxytocin levels in their blood pre- and post-run, and found a slight increase.
Those with autism spectrum disorders showed more oxytocin production in response to physical exercise than non-autistic people.
Intense or touch-heavy exercises are best to increase oxytocin:
- Running a marathon will increase oxytocin more than a simple jog. If you’re a runner
- Cyclists produce more oxytocin when they cycle until exhaustion
- Martial artists produce more oxytocin when they ground grapple compared to punk-kick sparring
Please note that all content found on this website is not to be considered professional medical advice. It is always best to consult a doctor with any questions or concerns regarding your physical health.
It’s hard to believe that such a small hormone could have such a significant impact. To review, oxytocin is a peptide hormone that manages essential aspects of human life like mating, childbirth, and lactation.
High levels of oxytocin are common in women, parents, and grandparents. Low levels of oxytocin may indicate anxiety, depression, and lacking empathy. Oxytocin ties to developing and maintaining interpersonal relationships through buffering stress and enhancing emotion recognition, compassion, cooperation, and social synchrony.
Here are three easy ways to increase oxytocin production:
- Have a vocal conversation with someone who makes you feel safe. Try telling them a story.
- Eye contact increases oxytocin instantly
- Touch in the form of hugs, handshakes, or getting a massage are surefire ways to increase oxytocin production.
If you want to learn more about the love, attachment, and bonding hormone and ways to increase it, here are some resources: