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.
Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of Viewfinder: How to Change the Way You Look at Things.