In Praise of Oxytocin, My Drug of Choice

Saturday night over dinner with some friends, the conversation turned somehow to oxytocin—that wonderful hormone sometimes called the “love drug” or the “cuddle chemical.”

The pituitary gland secretes it during orgasm, when we get bear-hugged or massaged, possibly when we pray or meditate, and when we snuggle. It also prompts new moms to produce breast milk, which promotes bonding and builds trust. Even meaningful eye contact with someone you love—including an animal, apparently (though, not being a huge pet person, I find that harder to understand)—can flood your brain and blood with the stuff.

Men produce it too, but since testosterone can interfere with oxytocin, they tend to have less of it. Its impact on the way we think and behave is nothing short of fascinating.

Oxytocin, scientists believe, makes us behave morally, can increase empathy, compassion, and generosity, and it helps build trust (in most of us, anyway). There is even research underway about its ability to treat depression. It’s not a psycho-social panacea, but read enough research about it and it starts to seem that way.

Here’s what I find especially interesting about it: You can’t “feel” oxytocin rushes the way you might adrenaline or dopamine—and yet in study after study, scientists are finding that when levels of it are elevated, we behave differently—regardless of how we feel. And different in a good way.

But here’s the thing: According to the researchers I’ve spoken with, it’s not like any old hug fills up you up with the cuddle drug. There has to be trust there (or at least some illusion of trust, which, yes, can get a little dicey depending on who’s hands you’re in). The prize you get for feeling trust in the first place is this hormone—which can then lead to more trust. Assuming you’re in the right hands, this is a very good system.

Soon, a book called The Moral Molecule, written by a neuroeconomist named Paul J. Zak, will come out about it. (You can and should watch his TED talk here—apparently, and unsurprisingly, the guy is a big hugger.) I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of it sent after my boyfriend got one first and I got jealous. I tore through it, fascinated by the ways our hormones impact our actions and our feelings about our actions and, in turn, may lead us to behave in ways that are more morally sound.

I’m going to not do the thing where I give you a list of ways to boost oxytocin in your life. Once you understand what the hormone is you can figure that out on your own. Or you can read Zak’s list, here.

Why am I writing about this on a clean beauty site? Because, duh, we’re about much more than products over here, as our stress series, our “There’s No Such Thing As Being Bad At Meditation” tips and our insanely frequent posts about sleep can attest. Also, being happy is one of the most natural ways to look good, and oxytocin is one of the most fun ways to get happy. So there’s that.

There’s no obvious question for a post like this, but please comment if you have anything at all to say. Perhaps you could tell us what you ate for lunch? Or, if you’re feeling sharey, your favorite source of this feel-good hormone?

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13 Responses to “In Praise of Oxytocin, My Drug of Choice”
  1. chloe says:

    Um, ok, duh. I ate some chicken tacos.

  2. Wow, I really found this fascinating. I love hugs and cuddling. Who doesn’t like a good orgasm, a great way to ward off depression it seems :) Totally PDA girl…

    Nicole <3

  3. Amy says:

    This is fascinating, and not something I know much about so I’d love to read more on the subject. But speaking of being happy, I just got my second Quarterly package in the mail and i’m SO EXCITED!! This is exactly what I need right now. Thanks for putting together such a wonderful set of stress relieving products :D

  4. Pauline says:

    sounds awesome! Will have to try it :) as fas as lunch goes- had a nasty salad. yuck

  5. Alix says:

    Ha, for some reason when I read the title of this post in Google Reader, I thought you said “Oxycontin, my drug of choice”!

  6. Rebecca says:

    Oh yeah, that oxytocin is some good stuff. It’s important for bonding between people (mom/baby, sexual partners, etc.) and it’s what makes a person willing to get up and make their partner a sandwich after sex. ; )

    lunch = banana, apple, almond milk w/orange juice

  7. Siobhan says:

    I love that you guys are actually telling me what you had for lunch

  8. Laura says:

    I was just reading about all the amazing things *natural* oxytocin does and is released in response to. It’s really cool! It should be noted, however, that synthetic oxytocin, which is used like crazy in American hospitals to speed up and induce labor in pregnant women, does exactly the opposite! Not only is it not absorbed by the brain, but it actually causes natural oxytocin production to stop. It’s crazy to imagine what this might be doing to the birth process!

  9. Nancy says:

    I really like to see a diversity of topics being posted and this one is really interesting. Thank you for bringing it up.

    On another note, the “box” problem seems to be back although this time around I see a square one :)
    I’m using safari

  10. Annette says:

    My brain went to “oxycontin” too! I thought WTF???

  11. eva says:

    The whole symphony of hormones conducting a natural birth and bonding afterwards is really amazing. According to Ina Mae Gaskin (THE midwife expert on this area), being held, praised, kissed, caressed and loved by a loved one during labor actually releases oxytocin which helps with the pain of contractions and helps dilation and progress labor. I don’t know if ALL laboring women would feel this effect to the degree that they could notice it (but hey, here’s hoping) but the measurements of oxytocin levels are pretty solid, scientifically, on this.

    I find it absolutely FASCINATING – and at the same time totally common sense – that being cared for and feeling safe has a physiological effect on our pain perception. The inverse is true too – bright lights, being scared, feeling surprised or angry releases adrenalin which stops labor. So, uhm, duh, be nice to yourselves and to any laboring women in your vicinity – the more I read about this the more I come away convinced that hormones play an enormous role in our general well-being, knocked up or no.

    Also, now I regret trying to save money and canceling my Quarterly subscription – it sounds like aromatherapy and I could use some of that – I still covet Lotus Wei…

  12. Jimmy Nickel says:

    Thanks for posting this and talking about these great insights.

    Oxytocin: The key to keeping your partner faithful.

    I saw Paul Zak’s Ted Talk and I too found it fascinating. It shows the biological basis for all that better relationship mumbo jumbo (turns out the mumbo jumbo is right).

    When a guy is getting regular sex, affection (by way of touching, hugging, kissing, etc..), and sharing experiences with a woman, his desire to cheat evaporates.

    In that case, he’s getting his regular “hit” of Oxytocin. He may see other women who are attractive but his desire to pursue them in any way goes away. Plus, with morality intact, the guy might also approach an opportunity to cheat with a “this is just not right” attitude.

    I know, because I’ve lived all of this.

    It’s similar to that feeling of going grocery shopping after a huge, satisfying meal. If you’re full, the other items in the store don’t look that great and you probably won’t buy much on impulse.

    I suppose the same dynamic applies to how men can keep their women “full” too…full of the love drug Oxytocin, that is.

    Turns out “Hugs No Drugs” is a self-contradicting statement :)

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