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Oxytocin More Than Mere 'Love Hormone'

Hormone Boosts Trust, Empathy, Charitable Donations; Reduces Anxiety and Stress, New Research Shows
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Happy couple with dog

Nov. 15, 2010 (San Diego) -- The love hormone oxytocin, known to be plentiful in lactating women and released by men and women during orgasm, appears to do much more, according to new research presented here at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

It's also associated with boosting trust and empathy -- to the point of increasing the wish to donate to charitable causes -- and reducing anxiety and stress. It may also improve social functioning in people with autism, although research is scant on that.

One thing's clear: It's no longer just the ''cuddle hormone," says Margaret McCarthy, PhD, a researcher at the University of Maryland School of Medicine who moderated a news conference Sunday that summarized the latest research.

Oxytocin Boosts Happiness

The higher your oxytocin, the higher your happiness and well-being, at least for women, says Paul Zak, PhD, a researcher at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif.

To test the link, he recruited 60 female college students and drew blood samples before and after they each received a $24 gift from a stranger. The women could return a portion of the money to the stranger or not.

Before the experiment, the women also finished a survey about their general disposition and satisfaction with life.

The women 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.

Oxytocin is known to be important in trust, Zak says.

"Those with higher oxytocin had more sex with fewer partners," he says, reflecting more long-lasting relationships. They were likely to be liked by other people.

But it's yet to be determined whether the oxytocin makes people happy, he says, or that happier people just have more oxytocin.

And what about men? "We don't think [these findings] will generalize to men," he says.

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