By: Dr. Will Cole
Many of my patients in my telehealth functional medicine clinic want to learn more about the inner workings of their health. A common question I get is what exactly drives our feelings and emotions and if that can be defined scientifically. And it all comes down to our brain chemistry.
Influenced by internal and external triggers, our brain releases a variety of chemicals known as neurotransmitters that control how happy or sad we feel. It also controls that warm and fuzzy feeling we get when we’re in love.
You can thank the specific neurotransmitter, oxytocin for that. Oxytocin is released by your brain's pituitary gland and is the powerful hormone that surges during orgasm. This is one of the main biological reasons why sex is a bonding experience for couples. Therefore, oxytocin is also known as the “love” hormone.
But oxytocin is so much more than that. In fact, the release of oxytocin has been linked to a variety of health benefits that can seriously improve your overall health. Let’s take a look at why we should encourage this neurotransmitter to flourish.
1. Improves sleep
Administering oxytocin has been shown to improve quality and duration of sleep, as well as cardiorespiratory homeostasis. However, additional research needs to be done on oxytocin’s exact role in managing sleep apnea.
2. Alleviates pain
People struggling with chronic pain have been found to have lower levels of oxytocin. In studies looking at individuals dealing with cancer, IBS, and back pain, oxytocin was able to relieve the pain associated with these conditions.
3. Boosts immunity
Your gut contains close to 80 percent of your immune system and your gut and brain are inextricably linked through the gut-brain axis. For example, those feelings of butterflies in your stomach are caused by oxytocin. When oxytocin is released, your body’s immune modulating T-regulatory cells are given a boost.
4. Curbs cravings
While underlying hormone imbalances are often a factor in weight gain and weight loss resistance, there can also be a psychological component for some individuals. In regards to binge eating, oxytocin has been shown to reduce the urge to eat for pleasure rather than hunger and can actually increase feelings of satiety.
5. Lowers inflammation
Chronic inflammation is one of the main underlying contributors to most modern day health problems. Oxytocin lowers inflammation through its ability to reduce pro-inflammatory cytokines such as IL-6.
6. Calms anxiety
Oxytocin has been shown to lower anxiety levels even in cases of severe anxiety disorder such as generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder.
7. Reduces heart disease risk
When your body releases oxytocin, it lowers inflammation, blood pressure, stress and anxiety, all of which are risk factors for heart disease.
8. Strengthens relationships
As we mentioned earlier, oxytocin is commonly referred to as the “love” hormone for its ability to increase bonding in romantic relationships. In fact, studies have shown that the release of oxytocin can increase monogamy in couples. But is also linked to childbirth. During labor, a mother’s body releases oxytocin to help the uterus contract and get ready for childbirth and then assists in strengthening the bond between mom and child once they are born.
How to boost oxytocin
Thankfully, there are plenty of things you can do to influence your own brain chemistry and boost oxytocin naturally.
1. Reconnect with your loved one
Simply connecting with your partner on an emotional level can increase oxytocin. Keep the fire burning with words of affirmation, acts of service, spending time together doing something you both love, and connecting with meaningful conversation.
2. Physical touch
Any sort of physical touch can boost oxytocin, not just sex. Cuddling, hugging, kissing, and just holding hands is enough to give your love hormone a little boost.
3. Get a massage
Going back to physical touch, even non-romantic or sexual touch can release oxytocin. Research has shown that even just 15 minutes of massage is enough to boost oxytocin in both the person receiving the massage and the person giving the massage.
Focusing your meditation practice on someone you care about - known as loving-kindness meditation - is enough to boost oxytocin.
5. Cuddle with your pet
Physical touch isn’t limited to human connection, as taking time to pet your dog can also release oxytocin in both yourself and your dog!
Learning how oxytocin is released in the body just goes to show us that health and our journey as human beings is not one that should be experienced solo.