Sven Wombwell
Article by: Sven Wombwell
Estimated 7 minutes read

In Brief:

Oxytocin is a hormone produced in your body to encourage emotional attachment with others. In women, oxytocin is partly responsible for the bond new mothers feel with their newborns and kick-starting lactation (milk production). In men, this hormone also facilitates bonding; it is produced on a lesser level but is still incredibly important. During cuddling, kissing, and intercourse, men produce significant amounts that significantly affect their behavior. It is not surprising that oxytocin is called the 'Hugging hormone.'

Crucially, as men age, the body produces less oxytocin which can affect physical well-being and emotions.

What is Oxytocin?

Oxytocin must be one of the most important hormones to humanity. This is a bold statement, but it is one of the building blocks of emotional attachment. These include forming relationships, sexual reproduction, childbirth, and love.

It is usually associated with women, where oxytocin is vital in labor and milk production (lactation). Oxytocin is also present in men, where it helps reproduction and production of testosterone in the testicles.

The rush of excitement you get meeting someone you like comes from oxytocin. This hormone is released in your brain into your body. It binds with receptors around your body, giving you that unforgettable euphoria. It essentially influences how you feel towards that person and in love. Even the simple act of spooning signals your body to release oxytocin, helping you both achieve a loving bond. This fact isn't surprising, especially when doctors and midwives encourage skin-to-skin contact with newborns to promote bonding.

Accidental discovery

In an accidental discovery at a doctor's practice in San Diego, they found an unexpected side effect of the so-called "Love Hormone" oxytocin. They were treating a 32-year-old patient diagnosed with ADD who also fit the criteria for Asperger'. His medication for ADD and antidepressants proved ineffective for his social anxieties, so he agreed to an off-label trial of an oxytocin nasal spray.

Not expecting any improvements in his sexual function, they discovered a 46% overall improvement. Using a standard measurable scale (Arizona Sexual Experience Scale), it is reported he experienced more desire, a boost in arousal, improved erections, and even better orgasms. Critically, he said he wanted to be closer and more affectionate to his wife. More incredibly, when the patient forgot to renew his prescription, the positive effects soon totally disappeared.

Mike Wyllie, a team member that discovered and developed Viagra ® (Sildenafil), commented that drugs based on oxytocin could have “Blockbuster” potential.

Many Studies Show Oxytocin's numerous benefits, so what's all the fuss about?

Another study at Zurich University by psychologist Beate Ditzen into Oxytocin and quarreling couples uncovered fascinating results. They found oxytocin had a positive effect on strengthening positive behavior. It seems that it actively reduced the levels of the stress hormone Cortisol in rowing couples. (read more: What is Cortisol?)

Ditzen observed 47 couples aged between 20 and 50 in a laboratory setting. They were asked to discuss a subject likely to cause a disagreement. Some were given a dose of oxytocin, and others a placebo nasal spray. The couples were then filmed and analyzed by a special coding device. Their Cortisol levels were also monitored to record stress levels during the confrontation. Positive relationship markers such as listening, laughing, and mutual confirmation were all assessed. They also looked at negative traits such as criticism, interruptions and disrespecting each other.

Couples who were given the hormone oxytocin behaved far more positively than those who took the placebo. Ditzen claimed, "Couples that received oxytocin behaved significantly more positively than couples with the placebo. Oxytocin prolongs the duration of positive behavior with negative behavior. Additionally, the cortisol values of couples who received oxytocin were lower in the conflict group than in the placebo group."

These results were pretty much stacked in favor of oxytocin. It had an incredibly positive impact on how couples reacted to each other during an argument. Ditzen went on to conclude. “Oxytocin might be a possible biological candidate to explain how close relationships and particularly couple relationships positively affect our health."

What are the Benefits of Oxytocin?

Oxytocin promotes bonding

In one fascinating study looking at children living in orphanages in Russia and Romania. They noted children with limited physical contact with adults could not produce significant levels of oxytocin. As a result, they lacked feelings of trust, love, and bonding. This significantly interfered with their ability to go on to bond with adoptive parents in the future.

The study involved 18 children who had spent, on average, the first 18 months of their lives in orphanages before being adopted into well-off US families. They were compared to 21 children born into the same privilege.

The children sat on their adult's lap the played an interactive computer game designed to promote child-adult interactions such as tickling and whispering. Researchers measured the hormone levels of the children before and after the game. The children who hadn't been adopted showed a significant increase in oxytocin levels. Even though the adopted children had been with their adoptive families for an average of 3 years, they showed no increase.

Oxytocin Promotes Monogamy 

Monogamy is uncommon amongst mammals, with a few exceptions, such as prairie voles and beavers. Humans, however, tend to form long-term relationships, possibly because of how long it takes to raise our children. Another factor could be the ability to produce oxytocin.

Oxytocin activates our brain's reward system, making us feel good with our partners. This is a similar reaction in the brain as when drugs are taken. In both love and taking drugs, pleasure receptors in the brain are triggered. This could be why when a loving relationship ends or the drug ‘high' passes, people feel mourning or a craving respectively; basically, they are in a state of withdrawal.

Oxytocin Boosts Sexual Satisfaction 

This is a bold claim but one that some research does back up. In a study in Germany, 29 long-term couples were given an oxytocin nasal spray or a placebo before having sex in their own homes. Afterward, they completed a satisfaction survey about how good the sex was and their feelings toward their partners. Those given the oxytocin (notably the men) reported more intense orgasms and a greater sense of euphoria afterward. Some women also stated they were more willing to share their desires and have greater empathy.

Oxytocin Reduces Stress and Anxiety 

In another study, a group of rats were divided into two groups. One-half were given an oxytocin-blocking substance, and the others were given nothing. Then both groups were forced to swim. Those with the oxytocin blocker spent more time frantically swimming to find safety than those without, who spent more time floating in the water.

This may suggest that oxytocin encourages better-coping strategies and has a calming effect, preventing a stressful response. This could mean that in humans, oxytocin could potentially help treat stress-related illnesses such as anxiety and depression.

In similar experiments on humans in situations such as job interviews, oxytocin effectively reduced anxiety and stress while increasing social interaction and communication. So it does seem that oxytocin can reduce stress and anxiety and increase personal connections.

Interestingly, reports also state this may be the case in social situations. For those who are lonely, though, oxytocin could have the opposite effect. Loneliness and oxytocin could trigger stronger feelings of longing and craving for personal social interaction.

Does Oxytocin Have Potential as a Love Drug?

Oxytocin is often called the "love drug" or "cuddle hormone" due to its role in social bonding and attachment. It has been shown to enhance feelings of trust, empathy, and social connection. It is also involved in various social behaviors, such as maternal bonding, romantic attachment, and social recognition.

However, it is essential to note that oxytocin is not a "love drug" because it can induce love or attraction on its own. Instead, it modulates social behavior and can enhance positive social experiences.

Claims over oxytocin being a love drug are controversial. However, research suggests it may have therapeutic applications in improving social behavior and reducing social anxiety. This could be particularly useful for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, more research is needed to understand the benefits and risks of prescription oxytocin and its use for these purposes.