Oxytocin may have more to do with love than we think. How often have you heard that well-worn bromide, “Love makes the world go round”? For many of us hopeful romantics, “true love” is an indefinable force of nature, or perhaps a mystical touching of souls. We might want to consider another concept; love might be nothing more than a trick of biochemistry.
Certainly the poet in us has a hard time accepting the idea of chemically-induced relationships. Many of us want to believe that the lustful rush of emotions and sensations that we feel when someone “hot” sits down next to us is a message from Cupid that Mr. or Ms. Right has finally arrived.
We all know that without “chemistry,” the relationship will be over as soon as the bill is paid. At the same time, this hormone is as mysterious to us as the invisible bonds that hold electrons to protons; we know it’s there, but it’s not completely clear how it works.
Science now has the evidence to show us that “chemistry” may actually be caused by — chemicals! Something as simple as the touch of a hand can release a tsunami of oxytocin into our brains, producing feelings of warmth, trust and connectedness — good for any relationship, short term or long. But are we really just love slaves to neuropeptides, these small protein-like molecules used by neurons to communicate with each other? Scientists have been working madly to find an answer.
Oxytocin is a very old part of human biochemistry, says Paul Zak, Ph.D., a neuro-economics researcher at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California, who has authored numerous articles on oxytocin. In a 2008 Scientific American article, Zak notes that vasotocin, a close relative of oxytocin, is believed to have been present in sea creatures 100 million years ago. Vasotocin helped these creatures reproduce by reducing an ovulating female’s natural fear of becoming the main course for lunch when approached by a male. Seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Through time, vasotocin evolved into two separate chemicals, oxytocin and arginine vasopressin, both of which help humans build trust and create connections. Oxytocin seems to be the chemical du jour, but the chemistry of our brains is far more complex than just oxytocin: testosterone inspires lust; phenylethylamine and dopamine create that “rush” of falling in love; vasopressin, found mostly in men, makes us want to protect our mates and our offspring.
Oxytocin is a hormone created in the pituitary gland inside the brain. The science of oxytocin began more than 100 years ago when a physiologist named Henry Dale first noticed its presence in breast feeding mammals. Since then, we have discovered that it helps induce labor in pregnant women and, after childbirth, stimulates lactation for breastfeeding mothers.
Oxytocin has been nicknamed the “Love Hormone” and the “Cuddle Hormone” because it is produced in both men and women after orgasm and makes couples want to cuddle afterward. Beyond sex, however, oxytocin is released when we are touched, when we eat, or when we participate in fun and exciting activities, like bike riding and skiing.
Even mild stress can cause the release of oxytocin. That’s why Zak says a good meal and a scary movie can make the perfect date, especially a horror film, where the stress makes you want hold on to each other.
Recent research with women indicates that oxytocin seems to create a sense of well-being and a feeling of trust with those around them. In men, it may make us more generous.
At the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in November of 2010, Zak presented his most recent studies and concludes that the higher a woman’s level of oxytocin, the higher her level of happiness and well-being. A precursor to love, perhaps?
To test the link between oxytocin and a sense of happiness and well-being, Zak took 60 female college students and drew blood samples before and after they were given a $24 cash gift from a stranger. The women could return a portion of the money to the stranger or not. Before the experiment, the women filled out a survey about their disposition and satisfaction with life.
Those who showed a higher increase in oxytocin after receiving the money were the ones likely to say they were satisfied with their lives and shared the most money with the strangers. They also tended to be more trusting.
Another interesting finding: the women with higher oxytocin levels had sex more often, but with fewer partners. This suggests oxytocin’s link to longer-lasting relationships, according to Zak.
What we don’t know, says Zak, is whether happiness is created by oxytocin, or oxytocin is created by being happy.
Zak is unsure about whether the same feelings arise in men, but he has done some research that indicates men become more generous when the oxytocin is flowing.
In Zak’s study, 41 men received either a dose of the hormone (two tablespoons up the nose) or a placebo. Then the men watched 16 public service ads on global warming, smoking, drunk driving and similar subjects. Afterward, the men were asked how they felt about the people in the ads, the causes and whether they would donate to any of the causes. The placebo group donated to 21% of the ads while the oxytocin group donated to 33%, according to Zak’s study. In addition, the oxytocin group donated 56% more money.
So the good news for women is that oxytocin makes men more generous, and that’s certainly part of nature’s design, says Zak. But the bad news is that testosterone tends to inhibit the effectiveness of oxytocin. Chemicals giveth, and chemicals taketh away.
While we know a great deal about oxytocin and the other neuro-chemicals that affect our love lives and our sex lives, we can’t pin all our successes or failures on chemistry. For all the power of the “love hormone,” humans still use their eyes, ears, nose and the power of reason to counter balance what the chemicals are telling us.
We are not slaves to chemistry, we are partners with it. Oxytocin may make us feel comfortable with someone, but we get to decide if they are too tall or too short, too heavy or too skinny, or if we prefer blonde or brunette. We still get to decide whether to go with brains or brawn. And I’m still not willing rule out divine intervention, not yet.
If you are wondering how to get your hands on some oxytocin love potion to help you win the heart (or the brain, actually) of that special someone, you will have a hard time; it is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and is available by prescription only.
Capitalism being what it is, there is one product on the market that advertises itself as “Liquid Trust.” It claims to contain oxytocin, but Zak doubts that. When confronted on that issue by Zak, the makers claimed that their product was a homeopathic mixture and contains only traces amounts of the chemical. You would probably have better luck eating a large box of chocolate truffles.
So what’s the best way to get the oxytocin flowing? “Hugs, not drugs,” says Zak. Touch is one of the best ways to stimulate oxytocin. Inappropriate touching of course can generate fear, which will trump your oxytocin. Careful, appropriate touching might be your best bet for making the right impression on that hot date.
Copyright © Rick Ruiz / 2014 Singular Communications, LLC.