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?


A New List: The Dirty Dozen

If you grew up in Canada like we did, you probably grew up loving David Suzuki. The environmentalist and educator has been ahead of so many issues for so long, so we were quite delighted to see that the foundation that bears his name has taken on cosmetics. Yesterday they announced the findings of their months-long research into cosmetics, and they’ve unveiled their own Dirty Dozen, which has a lot in common with the ingredients we warn about in the book (where we show you how to actually find these mysterious things on product labels, and in which products they appear). We like their list!

We’d love to see Canada pave the way for reform, but considering the head of the cosmetics industry in Canada is also a former government health official, we won’t be holding our breath.

You can download the complete PDF here. And read on to see what made their list:

1. BHA and BHT

2. Coal tar dyes

3. DEA

4. Dibutyl phthalate

5. Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives

6. Parabens

7. Parfum (a.k.a. fragrance)

8. PEG compounds

9. Petrolatum

10. Siloxanes

11. Sodium laureth sulfate

12. Triclosan

So we both happen to be 31 years old but, pinkyswear, we are not making this stuff up. A new study done by QVC—yes that QVC—has revealed that 31 (and not, say, 23) is the peak age for beauty.

Even more exciting, according to the Telegraph:

Some 70 per cent of more than 2,000 men and women polled cited confidence as a key factor in making a woman attractive, ahead of the 67 per cent who included physical beauty and 47 per cent who looked for a sense of style.

I don’t know about you but confidence wasn’t exactly booming in my teens and early twenties even if certain physical attributes were, ahem, more buoyant with youth. And confidence is something that accrues with age. You know what else does? Happiness! Maybe this getting older thing is not so bad after all—right?

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Women Are Better Than Men at Multitasking

The verdict is in: Women can do more things at once, or should that be: men can do less? A group of British researchers have finally put this long-held (but never verified) theory to the test and the results are pretty unequivocal.

According to the The Week, here was the researchers’ methodology:

They gathered 100 students—50 men and 50 women—and gave them eight minutes to perform three tasks at the same time. They all got the same tasks, which included solving simple math problems, finding restaurants on a map, and devising a strategy for finding a lost key in an imaginary field. Then, while they were juggling those assignments, the subjects received a telephone call, which they could answer or ignore. If they answered, they were asked some general knowledge questions while they continued the original tasks.

Apparently the women were undaunted by the multiple tasks and 70 percent of them outperformed their male counterparts. The men did well on the math, decent on the map test, but totally sucked at strategizing about the key.

It turns out the men didn’t use any kind of logical approach (!) but rather jumped right in with no plan.

I think even our male readers are probably having a little chuckle at that, no?

Ok, now for the rub: Multitasking is actually shown to make everyone less efficient (even us girls who are so good at it). Apparently when you focus on a single task both sides of your brain work together, but when you multitask they divide to conquer and that slows productivity. Still, my takeaway from this study? Women are more logical.

One more thing, though. Not to get all bra-burny, but why is it that this is just being looked into now? When working on the book this was something we ran into time and again: So much of the available research skews male and so much about women’s brains and bodies (and you know, hormones and skin…) remains cloaked in mystery. At least this is bound to change in coming years with so many ladies entering these fields.

Would you like to see more studies about women?

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Is Jasmine the Ultimate Chill Pill?

A bunch of Germans—why are they always out front on this stuff?—tested fragrances to see if they had any tangible effects on brain chemistry. Most of them did not, but jasmine? Big oui. It’s being called the first scientific proof that aromatherapy works.

From The Week:

Researchers … have concluded that the smell of Jasmine is just as effective as Valium—at least, on lab mice. Could doctors someday prescribe a daily whiff of this fragrant flower?

I mean, if they’re smart they will, am I right?

Photo (cc) by Flickr user kpjas