Oxytocin is sometimes called the love hormone because it’s responsible for some of the positive emotions you feel during attraction and sexual desire.
What exactly is oxytocin and how does it affect you? Here's what you need to know.
Is Oxytocin a Neurotransmitter?
Oxytocin is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter. Hormones travel through the blood and act on cells. Electrical signals in your brain and nerves cause chemicals called neurotransmitters to release and act on other brain and nerve cells. Oxytocin does both.
It is the hormone responsible for contractions during labor, for breast milk letdown (when your body releases milk while breastfeeding), and for erection and orgasm. It’s also responsible for positive emotions like trust and happiness.
Oxytocin in Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
Oxytocin is the hormone that starts labor by causing contractions in your uterus muscles. When your baby pushes against your cervix, signals are sent to your brain to release oxytocin.
Once oxytocin is released into your blood it attaches to cells in the inner wall of your uterus and activates them. This causes an increase of calcium in your cells and then starts muscle contractions.
Your body keeps releasing oxytocin in what’s called a positive feedback loop as your uterus contracts. This leads to stronger contractions more often until you deliver your baby. Some women are given oxytocin as a drug to help start labor or to make contractions stronger to get labor going faster.
Oxytocin also brings milk into your breasts. When your baby latches on to your breast, the sucking motion also stimulates oxytocin, which helps milk letdown. When the feeding is over, oxytocin will stop being released until the next time you nurse your baby.
The hormone also triggers bonding between you and your baby. Studies show that mothers with high levels of oxytocin during pregnancy and the first month after birth bond more with their babies than those with lower amounts.
Oxytocin and Love, Trust, and Mental Health
Oxytocin has a calming effect and can influence your emotions and mental health.
Lowers stress. Studies show that when people are under physical stress like pain or restraint, oxytocin levels rise in the blood. This might stop your nervous system from shutting down when you’re faced with something hard or scary and lower your stress hormone cortisol.
Lowers anxiety. Oxytocin might help lower anxiety as well. In one study, people who were given oxytocin as a nasal spray before public speaking had lower anticipation anxiety.
In another study, some people were given oxytocin nasal spray and a friend for support during a social stress test. Those who took oxytocin had lower anxiety than those who didn't. Those who both took oxytocin medicine and had the support of a friend had the lowest anxiety and more calmness.
Builds trust. Other studies show that oxytocin helps you feel trusting and generous. The hormone helps you correctly identify faces as either positive or negative and lower response to threatening faces. This helps you build trust and connection with others.
Affects mood. People who have depression might also have changes in oxytocin levels and production, but these effects aren’t fully understood. While oxytocin might be lower in those with depression, it’s not clear that taking oxytocin medication helps.
Build connections. Oxytocin helps form social bonds, which give a burst of feel-good oxytocin. It’s thought that a lack of connection is a form of stress that causes your body to release oxytocin and send you looking for interaction with others.
Oxytocin and Sex
Oxytocin is responsible for sexual arousal and orgasm. Nipple stimulation can cause a surge of oxytocin, which leads to lubrication and arousal in those with a vagina.
In those with a penis, oxytocin causes erection, increases sperm count, and moves sperm via ejaculation. Men have high levels of oxytocin during orgasm. Nasal oxytocin medicine raises the perception of arousal during masturbation.
People who have good, healthy sex lives are healthier and live longer than those without it. The theory is that oxytocin from sex promotes good health. But it might also be that sex can deepen relationships and bonding, which also involves oxytocin.
How to Increase Oxytocin
If you’re stressed or anxious, increasing oxytocin might help you feel calm. Physical touch — either sexual or comforting — triggers oxytocin, so safe and consensual sex and cuddling is an easy way to increase oxytocin.
But simple social activities and self-soothing practices can also help. These can include:
- Eating dinner with a friend
- Seeing your mom
- Spending time with your children
- A hug
- Petting your dog
- Getting a massage
- Soft, gentle self-touch
- A back rub
While there’s a lot of interest and research in oxytocin medication, there isn’t enough information yet about its effects. Some studies show taking oxytocin medication might make depression and anxiety worse.
For now, making connections with others and creating meaningful friendships and intimate relationships are some of the best ways to increase your oxytocin.