Oxytocin: The love drug

What is Oxytocin?
Oxytocin is the body's natural wonder drug. It's produced by the hypothalamus in the brain, and released into the bloodstream by the pituitary gland. Oxytocin was the first hormone to be discovered in the early 1900s, when veterinarians noticed that an extract of pituitary gland helped farm animals give birth. The name means "quick birth." Scientists continue to discover more of its effects on our bodies and our emotions.

What does it do to the body?
Oxytocin does play an important role in childbirth and lactation. It causes the muscle contractions that push the baby down the birth canal, and the pulses that push breast milk toward the nipples. For this reason many people think that only women produce oxytocin. In fact, men produce as much as women -- and we all need it to stay physically healthy. Oxytocin helps us relax and cover from stress, lowering blood pressure. It makes us feel calmer and helps reduce sensitivity to pain, while improving the body's ability to heal. Oxytocin also plays a critical role in our emotions. Released into the brain in social situations of all kinds, it's responsible for trust, generosity, and all kinds of love and personal connection.

How does it affect men vs. women?
While men and women produce oxytocin in relatively equal amounts, when it comes to the emotional effects, there are strong differences. Testosterone seems to mute oxytocin's bonding effects, while estrogen enhances them. This explains why it seems so much easier for women to bond with others -- and why sex, which releases tons of oxytocin into the body and brain, seems more likely to make women fall in love.

How can we produce more Oxytocin?
Any social interaction that feels safe can cause us to release oxytocin. Studies have shown elevated levels of oxytocin in the blood of people who sang together in a choral group; people who played with their dogs; Pleasant physical touch also releases oxytocin; they've seen increases in people who gave massages and people who received massages. (While it seems likely that hugging raises oxytocin levels, there hasn't yet been a study proving this scientifically.) The idea is to get in synch with other people in some way that feels safe and enjoyable. For many of us, it's as simple as making sure we take the time to connect with our families and friends.

Are any foods that help produce Oxytocin?
The release of oxytocin is stimulated by the digestion of fat. When your small intestine digests fat, it releases a chemical called CCK. CCK signals the brain to release oxytocin, which causes the smooth muscles of your gut to contract. This helps create the feeling of satiety after eating. Scientists haven't pinned down exactly how much fat you need to digest to cause the oxytocin release -- but it's definitely less than a whole pint of ice cream. Interestingly, the signal from the gut to the brain travels via the vagus nerve, which also carries sexual sensations to the brain. And, there's evidence that the CCK signal also causes a release of oxytocin into the brain's social centers. This could explain why food, love and sex seem so tied together.

About Susan Kuchinskas, author
Susan Kuchinskas is a journalist with more than fifteen years of experience who has published thousands of articles on science, technology, and culture. Her work has appeared in Time, Wired, and many other publications. She lives in Berkeley, CA. Visit Susan Kuchinskas' oxytocin blog online at www.hugthemonkey.com.

About the book:
When we make love, when we're stroked, when we pet an animal, and even when we spend time with close friends, our bodies respond by producing pulses of oxytocin, a hormone produced by the pituitary gland. Oxytocin floods our bodies with feelings of connection, trust, and contentment. Researchers believe that this natural, powerful "love drug" plays an important role in all human social relationships.

The Chemistry of Connection offers new information about how brain chemistry affects our platonic and intimate relationships and explains how oxytocin research can help us understand the psychological differences between men and women. But the book goes beyond detailing the biochemistry of love. Practical tips and guidance are offered to help readers increase their natural oxytocin levels in order to develop deep human connections, both with friends and with romantic partners.

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