Know Your Neurotransmitters,
40 MINS

#148: Know Your Neurotransmitters: Oxytocin

September 30, 2016
MP3

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On the flip side, low levels of oxytocin correlate with feeling socially withdrawn and anxious.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.

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Show Notes
  • 00:00:22

    Oxytocin

  • 00:01:18

    This Week in Neuroscience: Some Brains Are Blind to Moving Objects

  • 00:05:59

    The audience interaction section

  • 00:08:04

    What makes oxytocin so interesting?

  • 00:10:09

    Dr. Alexis Bailey’s route to oxytocin research

  • 00:13:04

    Is there such thing as too much oxytocin?

  • 00:14:14

    How oxytocin is administered

  • 00:16:39

    Do our bodies self-regulate oxytocin levels?

  • 00:17:35

    Behavioural changes tied to oxytocin

  • 00:20:49

    Does oxytocin cause an obvious acute effect?

  • 00:23:39

    Oxytocin and childbirth

  • 00:24:48

    How to affect oxytocin levels in your body without administering it directly

  • 00:27:40

    Onset of effects for exogenous oxytocin

  • 00:28:22

    Vaping - an ideal delivery method?

  • 00:29:12

    Couples therapy and oxytocin

  • 00:31:02

    Oxytocin baselines

  • 00:35:44

    Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick: Tattoo therapy could ease chronic disease

One comment

  1. ben says:

    The Dr. Alexis Bailey link above is broken.

    Kind of surprised not much was mentioned by way of MDMA/ecstasy which acts on the hypothalamus/pituitary to make/secrete oxytocin. Would have loved to hear his take on long-term MDMA use.. and/or the consequences of increasing circulating levels of serotonin (either via diet or SSRIs) would have a similar effect on oxytocin.

    Having a society of happy shiny people reminds me of the game ‘We Happy Few’!

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