Oxytocin is called the “love hormone,” but it’s really an emotion amplifier that causes both positive and negative effects on relationships.
Oxytocin has been dubbed the “love hormone” because it gets released when we hug, cuddle, or make love.
It increases trust and empathy to help us form bonds with others.
Some say that if we all produced more oxytocin, the world would be a happier, more loving place.
But as with most things involving brain chemistry, the answer is not that simple.
What Is Oxytocin? What Does It Do?
Oxytocin is a hormone normally created in an area of the brain called the hypothalamus. (1)
It also acts as a neurotransmitter — a chemical brain cells use to communicate with each other.
The word oxytocin is derived from the Greek words “oxys” (quick) and “tokos” (birth), meaning “quick birth.” (2)
Oxytocin is unique to mammals and naturally occurs during childbirth to stimulate uterine contractions.
It also facilitates breastfeeding and bonding between mothers and their newborns.
It’s often called the “love hormone” because it’s released by both men and women during orgasm.
Oxytocin strengthens emotional bonds and fidelity between couples.
Oxytocin levels are particularly high in both sexes during those first six heady months of a new love relationship.
This feel-good brain chemical strengthens positive personality traits such as warmth, trust, altruism, openness, and generosity. (3)
It makes people feel more extroverted and sociable.
Oxytocin can be administered as a medical treatment and shows potential for treating depression, autism, social anxiety, and schizophrenia. (4)
According to the American Psychological Association, some doctors are prescribing it experimentally for these purposes. (5)
Oxytocin is often confused with OxyContin, a highly addictive, opioid prescription painkiller.
But the only thing these two substances have in common is their similar spelling.
Oxytocin: An Emotion Amplifier
- cuddle chemical
- hug hormone
- molecule of connection
- monogamy molecule
- moral molecule
- trust molecule
It enhances the pleasure of social interactions by stimulating the production of anandamide, a neurotransmitter that’s been called the “bliss molecule.” (8)
Related on Be Brain Fit —
Anandamide: Bliss Molecule for Happiness & Mental Balance
Typically, oxytocin is considered beneficial to mental health due to its prosocial benefits and its ability to reduce stress and anxiety. (9)
People who release more oxytocin are happier and have more satisfying relationships.
So oxytocin has gotten a lot of press as a panacea that could bring about world peace and turn mankind into one big happy family.
But that’s an oversimplification.
Experts believe that oxytocin is not the ultimate love molecule, but more accurately acts as a “social emotion amplifier.”
It dials up social emotions, both positive and negative, ostensibly for your protection.
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The Downside of Oxytocin
Oxytocin strengthens your bond with your “tribe,” be that your family, co-workers, or favorite sports team.
But because it makes you more protective of your group, it also makes you more inclined to lie or bend ethical rules if you think it will benefit them. (12)
Studies found that those given oxytocin were twice as likely to lie than usual! (13)
Meanwhile, too much oxytocin creates walls between you and those not in your inner circle by intensifying fear and mistrust towards those not a part of your social group.
These negative oxytocin-induced feelings sometimes get directed at those you love, arousing the green demons of suspicion and jealousy.
Lastly, oxytocin reinforces fear-based memories, making it responsible for a collective boatload of psychological pain. (17)
Oxytocin Deficiency Symptoms
Clearly, not everyone will benefit from increasing their overall oxytocin level.
How do you know if more oxytocin would be beneficial for you?
- It’s hard for you to feel affection.
- You don’t enjoy social interactions.
- You have trouble keeping long-lasting relationships.
- You’ve been told you lack empathy.
- You have communication problems.
- When you have sex, it’s mechanical.
- You sometimes have trouble achieving orgasm.
- You lack joie de vivre.
- You are depressed, anxious or fearful.
- You crave sweet, high carbohydrate foods.
- You crave addictive substances.
- You can be angry and aggressive.
Causes of Oxytocin Deficiency
Oxytocin deficiency has been linked to numerous psychiatric disorders including autism, schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety disorders. (20)
In mentally healthy individuals, it can be brought on by too much stress.
There is an inverse relationship between oxytocin and the stress hormone cortisol so that when cortisol goes up, oxytocin goes down. (21)
Related on Be Brain Fit —
How to Reduce Cortisol, the Stress Hormone
Unfortunately, stress can cause you to disconnect from the people you care about when you could benefit from connecting with them the most.
Also, holding a grudge increases cortisol and decreases oxytocin. (22)
This includes holding a grudge against yourself.
You can increase oxytocin and reduce cortisol by forgiving yourself and others.
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Can You Test Oxytocin Levels?
Neurotransmitter tests are notoriously inaccurate.
They can’t test for levels in your brain so instead they test for levels in the blood, saliva or urine.
However, the expert consensus is that these levels have no bearing on what’s going on in the brain.
Oxytocin, however, is the exception.
Related on Be Brain Fit —
Neurotransmitter Testing: A Dubious Tool (+ what to do instead)
Unlike almost every other neurochemical, the levels of oxytocin in the blood accurately correspond with levels in the brain.
Consequently, researchers can measure spikes in oxytocin that occur after certain behaviors. (23)
However, oxytocin testing is not common, and it’s very unlikely your doctor will order this test for you.
So as with other neurotransmitters, symptom assessment is still the best available tool for detecting deficiencies.
How to Increase Oxytocin Naturally
Before we cover ways to increase oxytocin, I want you to keep a few things in mind.
Realize that basic oxytocin levels are near zero without some stimulus.
The amounts in the brain change moment by moment, hug by hug.
Taking measures to increase oxytocin is an ongoing process.
Fortunately, most of these steps are simple and even pleasurable.
Increase Oxytocin with Touch
The best way to get more “O” into your life is with physical touch.
You don’t have to be in love, have sex, or give birth to get a boost of oxytocin, although these experiences certainly do that!
Non-sexual cuddling, hugging, making eye contact, and even shaking hands get oxytocin flowing.
Neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak, PhD, is a pioneer in the field of oxytocin research.
He recommends eight hugs a day. (24)
No one around?
Cuddling your pet works too.
Playing with or petting your dog increases oxytocin levels in both of you. (25)
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Get a massage.
It’s a reliable way to boost oxytocin levels and reduce stress. (26)
While a professional massage is a wonderful treat, it’s not necessary.
Any kind of touch such as holding hands, a friendly back rub, or an encouraging pat on the shoulder will do.
You can even benefit from a little self-massage.
Rub your shoulder, your temples, or that tight spot between your eyes.
Or do a little acupressure like the kind used in a popular relaxation technique called tapping.
Other Activities That Increase Oxytocin
Give someone you care about a gift. (27)
It will delight them and boost your level of oxytocin.
Connecting and talking with friends can increase oxytocin significantly.
Surprisingly, this works even if you can’t get together in person but connect via social media. (28)
Physical exercise, especially yoga, is another natural way to increase oxytocin.
Temperature warmth is conducive to oxytocin release.
This may be one reason people in warmer climates are generally thought to have warmer, friendlier personalities.
Meditation, particularly loving kindness meditation, increases oxytocin as well. (31)
Here’s a guided loving kindness meditation you can follow along with provided by University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.
Self-soothing behaviors such as smoking and stress eating are two unhealthy ways to increase oxytocin. (32)
One reason people enjoy these habits may be due to the oxytocin boost they’re getting.
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Supplements That Increase Oxytocin
While taking oxytocin supplements directly is not effective, there are a few supplements that provide nutrients needed for oxytocin synthesis or that encourage its formation or release.
Vitamin C is a necessary cofactor for oxytocin production. (33)
Magnesium is required for oxytocin to function properly. (34)
Lactobacillus reuteri is a species of probiotic bacteria that’s available as a supplement. (35)
It improves levels of both oxytocin and testosterone.
The herbs sage, anise seed, and fenugreek have been shown to increase oxytocin in pregnant women. (36)
Melatonin is a naturally occurring sleep hormone that is also a popular sleep aid.
Even a small dose of melatonin increases the secretion of oxytocin within an hour after ingestion. (37)
While not a supplement per se, there’s some evidence that caffeine stimulates brain cells that release oxytocin. (38)
Why You Should Skip Oxytocin Supplements
You may be tempted to try one of the over-the-counter oxytocin supplements or nasal sprays that are marketed as “love potions.”
But I suggest you take a pass.
Keeping oxytocin supplements viable is nearly impossible since oxytocin has a three-minute half-life and degrades rapidly at room temperature.
When researchers study the effects of oxytocin, they use intravenous oxytocin or nasal sprays since oral oxytocin is destroyed in the digestive tract. (39)
Likewise, when oxytocin is medically warranted, such as to improve contractions during labor or reduce bleeding after childbirth, it is given by injection or nasal spray. (40)
For these reasons, the benefits of oxytocin supplements are almost certainly negligible.
Even the effectiveness of nasal sprays is in doubt.
To produce noticeable effects in test subjects, Dr. Zak, who has studied oxytocin extensively, needed to spray three teaspoons worth of oxytocin up their noses!
How to Increase Oxytocin: Expert Tips
Dr. Zak has spent more than a dozen years studying the role oxytocin plays in human behavior.
Based on the results of measuring oxytocin blood levels in test subjects, he has determined the following to be the best ways to increase oxytocin: (41)
- Give the people you’re with your undivided attention. That means putting down your phone and looking them in the eye.
- Share leisurely meals with others.
- Meditate, emphasizing loving kindness meditations over standard mindfulness meditation.
- Enjoy soaking in a hot tub.
- Stay in touch with others, even if it’s via social media. Surprisingly, 100% of the people he tested got a bump in oxytocin this way.
- Engage in controlled thrill-seeking with others. Take a roller coaster ride. Go whitewater rafting, bungee jumping, or skydiving. (Zak personally experienced a 200% oxytocin spike from a tandem skydive jump.)
- Tell people you love them.
- Give and receive eight hugs a day. It will make you and others happier.
- Stop shaking hands and give hugs instead and see what happens!
To learn more from this renowned oxytocin expert, watch this entertaining and thought-provoking TED Talk “Trust, morality — and oxytocin.”
How to Increase Oxytocin: Take the Next Step
Oxytocin acts as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter.
It’s been dubbed the “love hormone” because oxytocin levels surge when people are in an amorous relationship.
Oxytocin helps moms bond with their babies and helps couples stay faithful.
But the experts believe that oxytocin is not really a “love drug.”
Rather, it amplifies many emotions, causing both positive and negative effects on relationships.
While oxytocin supplements are not effective, there are a few supplements that provide nutrients needed for oxytocin synthesis.
But by far the best way to increase oxytocin is with physical touch of all kinds.
Sex, hugs, massages, and even cuddles with your pet can give you the warm glow of an oxytocin boost.