Peace, Love, and Oxytocin

>> Thursday

Doctors have known for a long time that oxytocin causes uterine contractions during childbirth. Oxytocin is a hormone. It also causes the mother's milk to "fall" (so the baby can breastfeed after birth). This much has been known for a long time. To induce labor, doctors inject a woman with oxytocin.

But researchers are discovering oxytocin has far more roles to play than this. And all its roles have to do with bonding.

The spike in oxytocin at birth causes the mother and newborn to bond to have feelings of affection for each other.

But childbirth isn't the only thing that releases oxytocin.

Sex does it too. So does massage. Even touching does it. Oxytocin is released in a flood during an orgasm.

So what does all this have to do with raising your mood?

Feelings of affection and bonding feel good. Feeling close to someone is a pleasure. Oxytocin is the opposite of stress hormones. Oxytocin makes you feel calm and relaxed, trusting, generous, and affectionate. It makes you feel unstressed. Some side-effects of oxytocin are: relaxation, lower stress, better face-reading, more open communication, feelings of connection, and feeling less isolated. Oxytocin also reduces pain and improves sociability.

All these results from oxytocin add up to one of the best moods you can have: The experience of feeling loved and loving.

The good news is that many of the things that produce oxytocin are in your control. You can take actions that increase those great feelings. The most important action you can take is to touch more. Touch and hug and hold hands with the people in your life.

In the 1960's, Sydney Jourard did an experiment to find out how often people touched each other in different countries. His study consisted of going to cities around the world and simply counting how many times people touched each other while sitting together in a cafe.

In Paris, the average was 110 times an hour. In San Juan (a city in Puerto Rico) the highest average of any city people touched each other 180 times per hour! In Florida, it was twice per hour, which wasn't quite as bad as London, where they didn't touch at all.

Have we improved how much we touch each other since then? I don't know. My guess is no, we haven't. It might even be less than it was in the 1960's. But that doesn't have to be the case with you personally.

You could do more touching, and it would have a positive effect on your mood, and on the moods of the people you love.

Being touched raises your loved ones' oxytocin level, and it will raise your own at the same time. Studies show getting a massage raises oxytocin level considerably. So does giving a massage. Even being in the same room with someone who has an elevated oxytocin level will elevate your own. Researchers aren't sure yet how this happens, but they have discovered that it happens. It might be something released in the air when oxytocin levels rise.

Another interesting feature of oxytocin is that it can create a positive or negative self-enhancing cycle. When you don't get touched much, your oxytocin level is low, and when it's low, you don't feel like being touched.

The more your oxytocin level goes up, the more you like being touched and want to be touched. Touching then raises your oxytocin even more. It's a positive, upward cycle.

Start today adding touch into your life. Give massages to your spouse. A good way to learn massage is to get a DVD showing you how to do it. Massage is good for your health and is one of the most reliable ways to raise oxytocin.

The physical effects of massage (such as relaxing muscles and moving lymph fluid) are good for your health, but the rise in your oxytocin level may be even better for your health recent research has shown a rise in oxytocin lowers stress, improves immune function, and speeds up the repair of physical injuries, even cuts. Wounds not only heal faster, but oxytocin reduces inflammation.

Massage is a powerful oxytocin-raiser. But even on a smaller and more casual scale, you can touch more and it will make a difference. Any touch that feels good raises oxytocin. Hold hands. Put your arms around your spouse. When you sit and talk, be in physical contact.

When you spend time with your children, make sure you touch and hug them. Raise their oxytocin level. Help them feel loved. When you go out to lunch with a friend, shake hands or do whatever you feel is appropriate to have some physical, friendly contact. It makes a difference.

Keep paying attention, and you'll find lots of opportunities throughout the day to touch and hold the ones you love.

Raise your oxytocin and you raise your mood and the moods of everyone around you.

22 comments:

Adam Khan 2:10 PM  

Here is a list of things you can do to raise your oxytocin level:

1. massage
2. physical touch
3. sex
4. orgasm
5. being in the presence of someone you feel close to and trust
6. being near someone with high oxytocin level
7. eating carbohydrates and fat
8. drinking a moderate amount of alcohol
9. being trusted
10. thinking about someone you love
11. exercise (probably)
12. meditation (probably)

Adam Khan 10:18 AM  

I just read an article explaining some recent research on oxytocin that said it makes people more generous. But I think that's really the wrong way of thinking about this.

One way of saying it is that an elevated level of oxytocin increases generosity. Another, and I think more accurate way of saying it is that an unnaturally low level of oxytocin causes people to be unnaturally stingy.

Most of us would have a much higher daily level of oxytocin if we were getting enough physical affection. A thousand years ago or a million years ago, everyone was very likely having far more physical contact with the people they loved. That much contact would be the norm. It is natural for humans.

So a high level of oxytocin is (or at least should be) the norm. Saying oxytocin makes people generous is like saying vitamin C makes people hold together better (a lack of vitamin C causes scurvy, which makes connective tissue of the body come apart).

In other words, instead of seeing oxytocin as a generosity-raiser, we could more usefully think of the lack of generosity as an symptom of an oxytocin-deficiency.

Adam Khan 10:41 AM  

I've been reading the book, The Oxytocin Factor: Tapping the Hormone of Calm, Love, and Healing, and found a few more benefits of oxytocin. The author and researcher, Kerstin Uvnas Moberg, wrote:

"Levels of the stress hormone cortisol have been shown to fall in adults who receive massage, and these adults feel less anxious. Another experiment showed that it was easier to solve math problems quickly and correctly following a massage.

"All these effects are similar to the effects of oxytocin injections that we saw in animal experiments: lower blood pressure, less cortisol, lower anxiety level, and more effective learning. As mentioned earlier, the effects of oxytocin are more powerful and long-lasting after repeated injections, and the same can be true after a series of massage treatments."

Adam Khan 11:00 PM  

Near the end of the book, The Oxytocin Factor, the author (Kerstin Uvnas Moberg) says something worth remembering:

"Today, drugs that raise the serotonin level and, as we have seen, the oxytocin level as well are the most popular medicines in the Western world. Even people who could be considered healthy are taking such preparations to become less fearful, happier, and more optimistic.

"But we have other alternatives. We can choose activities and pursuits that release the oxytocin stored in our own inner medicine cabinet. With this vital knowledge about the calm and connection system, we can choose to make exercise, meditation, or massage a priority over extra hours at work. We can choose to lie down for a short rest before running out to buy groceries. We can play with our children or take a walk instead of scheduling power breakfasts or spending hours at the computer."

Gypsy 5:22 AM  

I am a Massage Therapist. This article shows the importance of touch and how we need it to be a healthy society. Our culture has gotten away from "touching" and it has caused a multitude of problems. HUG someone today...for their health and yours!

Anonymous 3:00 PM  

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vr3x_RRJdd4

Free Hugs!

Adam Khan 5:02 PM  

You can watch a short video of a group of people who take an oxytocin lozenge or two and then try to describe their experience:

Oxytocin Party

Anonymous 10:48 AM  

As hairdresser one of the first things i do when i meet with a new client is to touch them. A greeting handshake and when i consult, resting my hands for a few seconds on the shoulders. When i have chosen not to do this for whatever reason. The entire experience has changed for us both when compared to when i do. One of my hobbies is reading body language. Its nice to happen across this article. Finding the relation of touch and natural chemical release and how it affects our behaviour/ feelings. This makes me want to read more and test it out in my profession. Where trust and touch, play such an important role. I love what i do and i want people to feel good and comfortable with me. For an all around good experience.

Dean 9:40 AM  

back in the day... when pregnant mothers had premature labor a physician might use alcohol in IV solution to stop the contractions. Alcohol has the effect of canceling oxytocin while at the same time it's effects have an initial similarity to oxytocin. This ability of alcohol to produce the initial positive effects of oxytocin while actually negating oxytocin is of concern. While a few studies show some increased levels of oxytocin with moderate alcohol use these are correlational studies. Because alcohol "mocks" oxytocin I refer to alcohol now as Moxytocin or Mock xytocin... you'll feel more social and more serene but the next day you will feel worse, be less social, less desirous of touch. I do drink in moderation myself. alchol for oxytocin deficient individuals I think is still questionable.

David 1:15 PM  

Thanks for the great info Adam. I can't wait to go hug my loved ones! I've definitely experienced the mood spirals you described where the more resistant to touch I am, the more resistant I become, and vice versa.

Also, thanks to Dean for the alcohol info!

Anonymous 10:13 AM  

i wonder how this effects those with Schizoid personality disorder.

David 7:22 PM  

Where do pets fit into this? (Both patting and cuddling them and generally having them around)

Adam Khan 10:45 PM  

That's an interesting question. The research on oxytocin is exploding right now. If you'd like to keep up with it, a great source is:

http://www.hugthemonkey.com/

Sign up for her updates. New research findings are constantly coming out on oxytocin.

Susan Kuchinskas is the author of Hug the Monkey. You can connect with her through her web site or on Facebook. She might know the answer to your question:

http://www.facebook.com/SusanKuchinskas

Adam Khan 10:52 PM  

Pets! Another interesting question. Having a dog measurably reduces your daily stress level, which has a greater impact on your health and mood than even deeply relaxing once in a while.

Read more:

Reduce Stress With a Guardian Angel

Dog-Gazing Raises Your Oxytocin Levels

Adam Khan 1:12 PM  

This just in...

"The organizers of the 12th International Conference of Human-Animal Interactions have announced that at their meeting this July, scientists will be presenting their latest findings confirming that friendly human-dog interaction releases oxytocin in both human and dog."

http://iahaio2010.se/uploads/press-release_bond-with-petsfinal.pdf

"The experiment found that women and their dogs experienced similar increases in oxytocin levels after ten minutes of friendly contact. Also the women's oxytocin response was significantly correlated to the quality of the bond they reported in a survey taken prior to the interacting with their pets."

Read an article about this research in Psychology Today here: Dog Good.

chiropam 11:36 PM  

Great article, thank you! As a chiropractor, this is what I try to promote every day.

kombipode 4:25 AM  

The sociopath I identified (and I have been aware of diagnosing them for over 15 years and this is the second one I have personally identified in 15 years)I notice does not become mroe generous with alcohol. When drinking beer with the boys he still behaves like the sociopath - avoiding paying for any beers, making promises to buy the next round and never buying it - And if confronted about it a manipulative argument of excuses and double standards, etc..

So thought I should mention this because with Oxytocin it was just a serendipitous observation and I believe people will notice the same with the affect of alcohol - normally people relax and become more generous.

Adam Khan 10:32 AM  

I came across an interesting experiment. Paul Zak found that when you give someone a dose of oxytocin, they tend to become more generous.

"Interestingly," wrote Joyce Gramza, "Zak found that oxytocin had no effect on two percent of the participants and that these students fit the personality profile of sociopaths."

Read more about sociopaths here.

Eudaimonia 9:40 PM  

Thanks for this article, I posted a link to it on facebook and my website. I'd like to add that an interesting side effect of MDMA use is that a person experience an elevated level of oxytocin release, perhaps being the reason why people are more open and trusting while using MDMA and other empathogens.

Adam Khan 2:49 AM  

In an article by Katherine Salant, she writes:

Any time you are with people you are close to and trust, your brain releases oxytocin. This reinforces the brain's bonding circuits and you feel calmer, explained Louann Brizendine, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California in San Francisco and the author of "The Female Brain." When teenage girlfriends chatter endlessly, they literally feel better because oxytocin is surging in their brains, she said.

To get the benefits of oxytocin's calming effect and what Brizendine calls "body time," however, "you have to be in the same place, see and sense the other person, and breathe the same air," she said.

With small children, body time means "floor time" because you have to be at their level to interact face-to-face and eye-to-eye, Brizendine said. As you roll around and play or sit quietly and read together, there's plenty of body contact that increases the amount of oxytocin released in your brain.

With somewhat older children, there's still plenty of calming body contact for the parents. But once kids hit adolescence, body time means being in the same room because "they won't let you touch them," Brizendine said, adding that teens themselves want body time with their parents, though most would never admit it.

Oxytocin has huge health benefits, Brizendine went on to say. It's as essential to the human brain and body as taking vitamins, and humans suffer isolation and depression without it. Equally important, the calming effects of oxytocin reduce and counteract the effects of cortisol, which our bodies produce more often than we think, in the course of our often-stressful lives. Its ill effects are not appreciated enough by the general public.

"Chronic stress and no down time is known to produce enough cortisol over time to damage those areas of the brain that affect our memory," Brizendine said.

Anonymous 5:17 AM  

Adam -

I haven't had a chance to read this thoroughly - just found it. I did a word search for "single" and it didn't show up. What suggestions would you make for people who are single, with no significant other to touch?

Adam Khan 10:37 AM  

My first thought is "get a dog." Petting a dog raises your oxytocin level reliably. Petting your own dog raises your oxytocin level even more (and raises the dog's oxytocin level too). And since you can do this many times a day, day in and day out, this is a great source of oxytocin, whether you are single or not.

Getting a professional massage is not a bad idea either.

And of course, find someone to love.

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