Episode 148

We’re back with another episode of Know Your Neurotransmitters, this time with Oxytocin.

There seems to be a legal obligation to refer to oxytocin as the “love hormone,” but it’s more accurate to think of it as the trust, bonding, and sociability hormone.  And that’s not all it does.

Dr. Alexis Bailey, Senior Lecturer in Neuropharmacology at St. George’s University of London, joins us to discuss oxytocin in relation to drug addiction, autism, and sexual intercourse (oh my!).

What Is Oxytocin?

Oxytocin is a hormone and neuropeptide that our bodies naturally produce in the hypothalamus.  Peptides are small protein molecules which have a hard time crossing the blood-brain barrier.

Because of this, oxytocin is generally administered intranasally, via a spray.  You won’t feel noticeably “high” – there’s no obvious mood-enhancing effect.

What Does Oxytocin Do?

Trust

Exposure to oxytocin increases feelings of trust, and make you more likely to trust another person.

Bonding

Oxytocin also induces pair bonding between both romantic partners, mothers and babies, and even between species — administering oxytocin to dogs promoted bonding with both other dogs and humans.

Addiction

Other research points to oxytocin being a possible weapon in treating addiction.  In Dr. Bailey’s own research, he found that treating opioid-addicted rates with oxytocin reduced depression and anxiety during withdrawal periods.

It also reduces alcohol consumption in rats, preventing alcohol-induced intoxication, and also reducing the severity of alcohol withdrawal.  Even better, it promotes addiction-resistant behavior by reducing anxiety and increasing sociability (see the next section for more).

Social Behavior

Dosing adults with synthetic oxytocin improves social ability, including things like holding eye contact, emotion recognition, and empathy.  Monkeys dosed with oxytocin are more communicative and interactive with other monkeys.

On the flip side, low levels of oxytocin correlate with feeling socially withdrawn and anxious.  That’s may be why people with autism seem to have lower-than-normal levels of oxytocin in their blood.  Oxytocin delivered as a nasal spray improves social responsiveness among autistic children.

Birth and Labor

Oxytocin induces labor.  Uterine contractions activate a woman’s brain, releasing oxytocin, inducing more contractions and ultimately delivery.  In a double whamming, it also functions as an analgesic, numbing pain.  Pretty neat, right?

Then, once the baby is delivered, it also helps with lactation and the release of milk.  That’s why breastfeeding causes such strong feelings of bonding with the baby.

Spirituality

Some of the latest research has found that oxytocin even increases spirituality (defined as a sense of connection to a higher power or the world that gives life meaning).  Men who were administered oxytocin were more likely to say that spirituality was important in their lives, even when controlling for religious affiliation.

How To Increase Your Levels of Oxytocin

Oxytocin is very safe, since it’s an endogenous hormone.  But Dr. Bailey urges caution in supplementing oxytocin.

All studies so far have looked at acute (one-time) administration, so we don’t know what changes long-term use of oxytocin could cause in the brain.

You should also avoid taking synthetic oxytocin if you have cardiovascular or kidney problems.

That said, you can increase oxytocin naturally.  There are no dietary changes you can make, but certain activities will boost oxytocin:

  • Positive social interactions
  • Physical contact with others
  • Sexual intercourse
  • Stress.  Interestingly, stressful situations increase levels of oxytocin as a stress-coping mechanism.
There’s no question about the effects of oxytocin, but some research suggests that even intranasal application can’t cross the blood-brain barrier.  Some scientists haven’t been able to replicate positive results of nasally-delivered oxytocin studies, and posit that there may be a publication bias in favor nasal oxytocin studies with positive results.

It seems like time will tell if spraying oxytocin up your nose is the next wave of treatments for conditions like autism and addiction.

Episode Highlights

0:22Oxytocin
1:18This Week in Neuroscience: Some Brains Are Blind to Moving Objects
5:59The audience interaction section
8:04What makes oxytocin so interesting?
10:09Dr. Alexis Bailey’s route to oxytocin research
13:04Is there such thing as too much oxytocin?
14:14How oxytocin is administered
16:39Do our bodies self-regulate oxytocin levels?
17:35Behavioural changes tied to oxytocin
20:49Does oxytocin cause an obvious acute effect?
23:39Oxytocin and childbirth
24:48How to affect oxytocin levels in your body without administering it directly
27:40Onset of effects for exogenous oxytocin
28:22Vaping - an ideal delivery method?
29:12Couples therapy and oxytocin
31:02Oxytocin baselines
35:44Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick: Tattoo therapy could ease chronic disease

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Written by Hannah Sabih
Hannah believes there's nothing 8 hours of sleep and some kale can't cure (yes, she's from California). She's an avid runner, reader, and traveler, who brings you the latest and greatest in neuroscience via our social media channels.