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Oxytocin Is More Than Just A Love Hormone!

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Oxytocin has shown to improve the quality of life, leaving you healthier and happier. It enhances mother-child bonding and helps in breastfeeding and childbirth. It boosts sex drive, loyalty, and intimacy between lovers, making it ideal for couple therapy. It makes you more social, while discouraging drug and alcohol addiction. It fosters trust and calms your nerves.

The pituitary is a very important gland located at the base of the brain, just below the hypothalamus. The two main sections of the gland, the anterior and posterior pituitary secrete some very essential hormones for life.

Anterior Pituitary Hormones

  • ACTH (Adrenocorticotrophic Hormone) – stimulates adrenal gland to produce cortisol.
  • FSH (Follicle Stimulating Hormone) and LH (Luteinizing Hormone) – control sexual characteristics and reproductive functioning, known as gonadotrophins.
  • TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone) – stimulates the thyroid gland to release thyroid hormone.
  • Prolactin – stimulates breast to produce milk for lactation.
  • MSH (Melanocyte Stimulating Hormone) – deficiency can increase pain, inflammation and sleeping issues.
  • GH  (Growth Hormone) – stimulates growth and repair

Posterior Pituitary Hormones

  • ADH (Antidiuretic Hormone) – controls blood fluid and mineral levels along with hydration
  • Oxytocin – more below about the many functions of oxytocin…

Oxytocin – A Diverse And Complex Hormone

The hormone oxytocin is often referred to as the neuropeptide of “love and attachment.” Perhaps the least understood of the pituitary hormones, it has been linked to maternal-infant bonding, lactation, social behavior, trust, and sexual pleasure.

It is best-known to release when a mother breastfeeds her newborn infant, stimulating the uterus to contract to avoid blood loss and increasing the bonding between the mother and her baby1.

Several studies suggest it may be useful in treating autism2 and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)3.

In the Autism Speaks-funded pilot study 4 researchers administered oxytocin spray to 25 children twice a day for 2 months. The children who received oxytocin showed greater improvement in social behaviors compared to those who received the inactive nasal spray.

The excitement over the hormone began in the 1990s when researchers discovered that breastfeeding women were calmer than bottle-feeding mothers in the face of psychosocial stress. Recent research is probing whether or not administration of oxytocin can also promote trust and generosity5.

A 2005 study published in Nature6 showed that the effect of oxytocin on trust is not just due to a general increase in the ability to bear risks. Instead, oxytocin specifically affects an individual’s willingness to accept social risks arising through interpersonal interactions.

A Tale Of Two Voles

The Prairie vole, native of the woodlands of Europe and Asia, is one of the only 3% of mammals who prefer to pick a partner and mate for life. However, a close relative the Montane vole has no interest beyond a one-night stand with its partner. What makes these closely related species so different?

Turns out it’s the two posterior pituitary hormones, ADH and oxytocin, which the Prairie vole has receptors for but the Montane vole does not. If the release of these hormones is blocked, the Prairie voles become like their cousin and have a fleeting affair instead of life-long monogamy7.

Social Separation And Stress

Recently, studies show that this hormone is also released in response to social separation and stress. According to research by Grippo and Porges8, the findings support the hypothesis that oxytocin may protect against behavioral and cardiac dysfunction in response to chronic social stressors and may also provide insight into social influences on autonomic function in humans.

So in times of well-being, oxytocin reinforces the human bonding experience, spouse to spouse, parent to child, or even among friends. In contrast, during times of great stress or pain, oxytocin may lead people to seek out a social connection to better deal with the trauma. In a brain imaging study9, University of Cambridge neuroscientist Pradeep Nathan, PhD, showed that, in people with social anxiety disorder, oxytocin calmed an exaggerated response to fearful faces typically seen in their amygdalas.

Top 10 Effects Of Oxytocin In Humans

  1. Promotes maternal-child attachment
  2. Encourages monogamous behavior between spouses
  3. Enhances sense of well-being and improves sleep
  4. Fosters generosity and trust
  5. Decreases the stress response to traumatic events but may at the same time imprint stressful memories
  6. Facilitates childbirth and breastfeeding
  7. Reduces drug and alcohol cravings
  8. Improves social skills and social interaction
  9. Boost sexual arousal and increases intimacy post-intercourse
  10. Triggers protective and social instincts in both men and women

Bottom line: Oxytocin is much more diverse and complex than previously thought.

Your doctor may prescribe Oxytocin:

  • To treat milk-letdown issues in breastfeeding
  • To treat autistic spectrum disorders and social anxiety disorders
  • To treat sexual arousal disorders and attachment disorders
  • To treat couples in therapy who are interested in increased intimacy and bonding after intercourse
  • To treat delayed orgasm in men
  • To treat deficiencies in ADH hormone (oxytocin has slight anti-diuretic properties)

How Is Oxytocin Given?

Chymotrypsin, present in the GI tract, destroys oxytocin, rendering oral administration relatively ineffective.  Oxytocin requires a prescription and is usually given as a sublingual immediate release tablet or more commonly as a 24IU nasal spray.

Future Applications

I have a feeling we are just scratching the surface of the varied and many applications of oxytocin. New uses include a topical oxytocin cream for vaginal lubrication10 in women with atrophy who may not be candidates for estrogen therapy. In addition, it is being investigated as an anti-aging tool to protect loss of muscle mass as we age and reduce overeating 11 by reducing caloric intake.

It is also being researched for use in treating leaky gut,12 treating systemic inflammatory disorders,  and even in the protection against breast cancer13!

I have recently been using it in patients who are symptomatic for oxytocin insufficiency and have dysfunctional pituitary secretion of ADH and MSH related to Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS).

References   [ + ]

1.Feldman, Ruth, Aron Weller, Orna Zagoory-Sharon, and Ari Levine. “Evidence for a neuroendocrinological foundation of human affiliation plasma oxytocin levels across pregnancy and the postpartum period predict mother-infant bonding.” Psychological Science 18, no. 11 (2007): 965-970.
2.Hollander, Eric, Jennifer Bartz, William Chaplin, Ann Phillips, Jennifer Sumner, Latha Soorya, Evdokia Anagnostou, and Stacey Wasserman. “Oxytocin increases retention of social cognition in autism.” Biological psychiatry 61, no. 4 (2007): 498-503.
3.Leckman, James F., Wayne K. Goodman, William G. North, Phillip B. Chappell, Lawrence H. Price, David L. Pauls, George M. Anderson et al. “The role of central oxytocin in obsessive compulsive disorder and related normal behavior.” Psychoneuroendocrinology 19, no. 8 (1994): 723-749.
4.Researchers Launch Study with Oxytocin Nasal Spray, Autism Speaks
5.Can oxytocin promote trust and generosity?, American Psychological Association
6.Kosfeld, Michael, Markus Heinrichs, Paul J. Zak, Urs Fischbacher, and Ernst Fehr. “Oxytocin increases trust in humans.” Nature 435, no. 7042 (2005): 673-676.
7.High on Fidelity, American Scientist
8.Grippo, Angela J., Diane M. Trahanas, Robert R. Zimmerman, Stephen W. Porges, and C. Sue Carter. “Oxytocin protects against negative behavioral and autonomic consequences of long-term social isolation.” Psychoneuroendocrinology 34, no. 10 (2009): 1542-1553.
9.Oxytocin Reduces Background Anxiety in a Fear-Potentiated Startle Paradigm: Peripheral vs Central Administration, Nature.com
10.Jonasson, Aino Fianu, Lena Edwall, and Kerstin Uvnäs-Moberg. “Topical oxytocin reverses vaginal atrophy in postmenopausal women: a double-blind randomized pilot study.” Menopause international 17, no. 4 (2011): 120-125.
11.Ott, Volker, Graham Finlayson, Hendrik Lehnert, Birte Heitmann, Markus Heinrichs, Jan Born, and Manfred Hallschmid. “Oxytocin reduces reward-driven food intake in humans.” Diabetes 62, no. 10 (2013): 3418-3425.
12.Welch, Martha G., Kara G. Margolis, Zhishan Li, and Michael D. Gershon. “Oxytocin regulates gastrointestinal motility, inflammation, macromolecular permeability, and mucosal maintenance in mice.” American Journal of Physiology-Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology 307, no. 8 (2014): G848-G862.
13.Murrell, T. G. C. “The potential for oxytocin (OT) to prevent breast cancer: a hypothesis.” Breast Cancer Research and Treatment 35, no. 2 (1995): 225-229.
Jill Carnahan, MD

Dr. Jill is Your Functional Medicine Expert! She uses functional medicine help you find answers to the cause of your illness and the nutritional and biochemical imbalances that may be making you feel ill. Functional medicine is personalized medicine that deals with root cause of disease instead of just treating symptoms. Dr Jill will search for underlying triggers that are contributing to your illness through cutting edge lab testing and tailor the intervention to your specific needs as an individual. She may use diet, supplements, lifestyle changes or medication to treat your illness but will seek the most gentle way to help your body restore balance along with the least invasive treatment possible. She seeks to promote wellness and create hope, health and healing by working with you!

Jill Carnahan, MD

Dr. Jill is Your Functional Medicine Expert! She uses functional medicine help you find answers to the cause of your illness and the nutritional and biochemical imbalances that may be making you feel ill. Functional medicine is personalized medicine that deals with root cause of disease instead of just treating symptoms. Dr Jill will search for underlying triggers that are contributing to your illness through cutting edge lab testing and tailor the intervention to your specific needs as an individual. She may use diet, supplements, lifestyle changes or medication to treat your illness but will seek the most gentle way to help your body restore balance along with the least invasive treatment possible. She seeks to promote wellness and create hope, health and healing by working with you!