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?