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?
For at least the last five years, and probably longer, Alexandra and I have used an unbelievably inefficient system for tracking our fertility: We send each other text messages when our cycles start. That way, our fuzzy logic goes, we a) Always know how the other person is feeling; b) Can see if we’re still in sync, even though we’re on opposite coasts; and, most important, c) Have a dated record of our last period, lest we forget, which we always do.* It’s a ridiculous system. But until recently, it suited us both just fine.
Then Alexandra discovered the greatest app ever created: It’s called iPeriod, it’s free, and it’s amazing. Here’s why:
It’s an idiot-proof way to track not just your period and/or spotting, but also your mood, your skin, your cramps, your stress level, your sex life, and when you’re ovulating, which is important if you aren’t keen on getting pregnant right now. The app also predicts, with startling accuracy, the date of your next cycle, even if you’re irregular. What more could you want?
There’s also a note-taking section, which I find particularly useful. If you use it as a sort of shorthand diary, you may be able to detect patterns in your own life that sync up with your cycle. For instance, maybe your sleep get better when progesterone spikes, or maybe your skin freaks out right before your cycle, or maybe, just maybe, you have a tendency to pick big stupid fights with your partner in the days leading up to ovulation. This can all be very useful information!
We’ve spoken before about different methods of birth control on the site, and you guys almost broke our commenting record with all your thoughts. And so for those of you who aren’t on the pill, who are interested in tracking their own cycle, we cannot recommend this app highly enough. Of course you still need to use common sense: Having condomless sex if you are anywhere near ovulation is a terrible idea! And you should still educate yourself on the basics. For reasons that are beyond me, this stuff isn’t taught—or at least not taught properly—to young women, which is why it’s hardly surprising that so many women I know think ovulation happens two weeks after their period ends. Not so! In any case, this isn’t sex ed class, and everyone has to take responsibility for their own stuff, but this app takes out a lot of the guesswork.
How do you keep track of your cycle?
Surprise! It’s 2012 and we are trying new things.
Continuing love-thyself-for-Valentine’s-Day theme, we have teamed up with a fashion designer we love to create two little gift sets for women who are in need of some serious pampering—or who just love pretty things!
Society for Rational Dress has been a longtime favorite brand of ours, so when founder Corinne Grassini approached us about doing a partnership, we got pretty excited. The SFRD name was inspired by a Victorian anti-corset women’s movement called the Rational Dress Society, and Corinne has made female partnerships central to her brand’s philosophy. We obviously love that.
While we don’t fancy ourselves fashion designers, we really enjoyed brainstorming and giving our input to help create this organic hemp nightie (isn’t it pretty?) and relaxing lavender, rose petal and chamomile face pillow. We wanted to offer something that encouraged women to pamper themselves, as well as to take timeouts from their busy days.
The items are being sold as a set of all three (third item being…the book!), or if the nightie’s not your style, you can get just the eye pillow with a book as well. And of you already own a book? Great! Gift it to a friend! Though this one is different from a conventional Friday Deal (BTW that one is still running!), as our readers you get a special discount.
You’ll get an additional 10% off the sets and anything else on the Society website when you enter the NMDL promo code. Because this is sort of an experiment, these were all made in very limited quantities. So if you like it, get ‘er!
And P.S. While we can all agree the model is a total beauty, we also know for a fact this nightie also looks good on girls with some curves. Which matters! Just sayin’!
When my insomnia hit the other night, I did everything wrong.
I’d managed to work myself up about something before bed, but because I have the stamina of a toddler when I’m upset, I tired myself out quickly and crashed hard around 11:30pm. Then, at 4:30am, my brain went on like a light. There I was, in that strange time when “tonight” becomes “tomorrow” and the last thing in the world you should be doing is witnessing it. (Unless of course you’re doing something really fun—which I wasn’t. I was lying there with looping thoughts, the lights on, a search window open on my laptop, and Twitter fired up on my phone…)
We have written plenty about sleep hygiene here. We polled you once to find out how much you sleep (a lot!); we asked you guys to share your bedtime rituals with us (they were great!); we’ve explored how sleep can help your looks (duh); and we’ve covered ayurvedic principles about sleep before, as well.
But isn’t it funny (dumb) that no matter how much you know about the Right Thing To Do for your wellbeing, it’s often exactly when you need that advice the most that it escapes you?
With that in mind, here’s a primer, filled with things you already know, on the best and worst things to do when you can’t sleep. Obviously this advice is highly subjective. Where appropriate, we’ve mentioned some actual science to back us up. And, as always, we want your tips in the comments.
1. Tweeting, emailing, checking your stocks, approving comments on your blog etc. Research shows that light-emitting devices can suppress the production of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin—which means when you wake up to check your cell, or simply have it on blinking at you from the bedside table, you’re sending signals to your brain that it isn’t time to chill out. Turn them off, use airplane mode, or put them on the other side of the room. When you wake up, try your best not to check them.
2. Watching scary TV shows. I can’t watch scary things at night anymore without getting nightmares and waking up a lot. Granted I’m on the sensitive side (cough), but there is good research that shows how disruptive this can be. It can spike stress hormones in the body and put you in an excited state (not the good kind) that doesn’t bode well for rest. Some people can watch anything before bed and fall asleep, but if you wake up in the middle of the night and decide to flip on the tube, maybe don’t try to catch up on a season’s worth of Boardwalk Empire?
3. Turning on the light. This actually can be a good thing (see below), but in general, if you wake up and have to pee or you stand a chance of falling back asleep fairly quickly, don’t turn on the lights or lift up your black-out blinds. (You all have black-out blinds, right? If not, you should! They’re super cheap at Ikea and make a world of difference.) For the same reasons you want to avoid electronics, you also want to avoid turning on the lights: It tells your brain that it’s time to be awake by suppressing sleep hormones. Pas bon.
4. Drinking booze. We’ve all seen the research about nightcaps actually disrupting sleep, and here’s why: It robs you of REM and the other, deeper stages of sleep—which are the ones that make you feel most rested. A glass or two of wine can make you feel nice and relaxed, and that can be sleep-promoting, but drinking too close to bedtime (not to mention in the middle of the night) should probably be avoided.
5. Just lying there freaking out. If you’re past the point of no return—meaning you can just tell you won’t be falling back asleep any time soon—do something else. You can go ahead and break rule number 3 here. Get up and do something, anything, until you feel sleepy again.
1. A cup of herbal tea or some aromatherapy. Many herbs—chamomile, lavender, valerian root—have been shown in research (and by wise grandmothers) to make you sleepy. Similarly, jasmine has a sedative effect when inhaled, as do Hope Gillerman’s Sleep Remedy and Essence of Vali’s. Just be sure to do your research and/or check with your doctor before you start dosing yourself. Nature makes some very powerful plants
2. Reading something you’ve read before. This works wonders for me. A yogi and a nerdy scholar at heart, I have been rereading The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali for years now. Here’s why it works: When you read things you are already familiar with, it doesn’t stimulate your mind with new information the way an exciting novel or a piece of nonfiction would. In fact, it has the opposite effect of comforting you with information you already possess, and, well, kind of boring you.
3. Meditate. A tough sell at 4am, I know, but it helps quiet the mind and ready you for more sleep. Our tips are here—and the compassion meditation is an especially nice one to do because it puts your focus on people you love. You could also try listening to recordings of meditations by Pema Chodron (or someone else, but man is she good). You can break rule number 1, above, for this one, obviously.
4. Do some yoga. Nothing too vigorous, but some poses have been shown to promote sleepiness. There’s a nice list over here.
5. Wake up your buddy and chat and/or have sex. This requires a forgiving and generous significant other, but if you have one, and you know they won’t mind hearing what’s on your mind and helping you simmer down, this can be very helpful. As for sex, just bear in mind that for some people, sex is sleep inducing (for example, every single man who ever walked the earth*) and for others it’s sleep inhibiting.
6. Pretend it’s already tomorrow. If you’re really stuck, try pretending it’s not 4am but 8am and it’s time to get ready for work or school. Take a shower, brush your teeth, drink some water—but be sure to skip the coffee. It sounds nuts but this has worked for me! At some point, when you’re going through the motions, something in your mind will click and you’ll think: “This is totally insane. I should be asleep right now.” And then maybe, just maybe, you will be.
Your turn! What are your tips: What’s the best—and worst—things one can do when one can’t sleep?
* I kid! Sort of.
Quick disclaimer and then we’re going to get right into it and talk about the birth control pill (Happy Monday!): Nothing I say in this post constitutes medical advice, and you should never stop or start taking prescription drugs without talking with your doctor. (Especially the starting part; pretty sure that would be illegal, right?) Also:
There’s no judgment—implicit or explicit—on anyone who is on or has been on birth control pills. Some people love them, some people have to take them for medical reasons, some people abhor them. Here, we want to talk candidly about what happens when you go off them. Because, whoa. That can be hectic.
Feeling like an overshare, so here, I’ll start: I got on the pill for the first time pretty late, comparatively speaking. I was 22 or 23, I got on Ortho, and almost instantly became the girl who cries at commercials (OK, still am, always have been, but this was extreme!) and one time I even broke a plate when my loving boyfriend at the time did basically nothing. This was not normal for me! I was being nuts! I quickly got off it, quickly went back to normal, and then didn’t start it again for another several years.
I was 26 or so when I went back on the pill, Mircette this time, thinking it would add convenience to my personal life, and clear up my skin—after all, that’s what my dermatologist told me would happen. I stayed on it for two years. During that time I didn’t cry a lot or break stuff. My skin was OK but not perfect. My libido was OK—which seems better than most, according to this new research, but “OK” does not equal amazing. I didn’t have major mood swings or anything. But something never felt quite right. The best way I can put it is, I sort of felt like a prisoner in my own body. I’m not sure why, and no, I can’t elaborate, but something never felt quite right. It was FINE. But FINE has never been all that appealing to me, and so I talked it over with my GYN and we decided it was time to stop. It wanted to let nature run its course. And by nature I mean, like, ovulation and stuff.
After I went off the pill, my skin freaked out. It was erratic for a few months, throughout which I tried everything: Products, lasers, facials…products. Not clean ones, either. (This was pre- everything I now know.)
My take, in retrospect, is that you shouldn’t try a million things at once, nor should you spazz out. If I were doing it all over again, here’s what I would do: Coach my body, with the help of a doctor or acupuncturist or both, to get my hormones in balance. I would stay away from, or at least limit, eating hormone-pumped meat and dairy, take folic acid and omegas daily, get plenty of sleep and keep a routine, and use a gentle, organic skincare regimen.
I emphasize hormone balancing because what’s happening in your skin is a reflection of what’s happening inside your body—not on the surface of your skin. Also, because the other thing that happened when I went off the pill: my period went away for the better part of a year. I have many explanations for this, both medical and completely esoteric, but suffice to say it was really disconcerting. To be in your late 20s and have it…missing, for months at a time, feels indescribably bad. On the PLUS side (there’s always a plus side, you guys): Now that I’m regular again, I’m so very thankful every single month when my period comes. And no, I will never, ever go on the pill again.
Anyway, because we understand the challenges that come with such a major decision, we were moved by a recent reader letter from Paris. She’s gone off the pill and, yes, ugh, skin woes. She really wants NMDL readers to help! In her words:
“I accept that my body is going to go on a roller coaster ride. I’m ready for the acne this time. Last time I thought I could just stop taking the pill and my skin wouldn’t talk to me. How oily my scalp got and the abundance of acne caught me by surprise. I froze up and caved in and took the pill again. This time, I will be ready for them, and hope to have better ways to deal with them or even prevent them.
Are you guys all in love with her now, too? We thought so. Now let’s help a girl out. Who’s tried what? And even if you don’t have advice for Paris Girl, have you gone off the pill ever? What happened? Share, yes? Please and thank you.