The feeling of love and relaxation you experience when cuddling with your kids or having sex results from releasing oxytocin.
The hormone oxytocin is the “love hormone” that promotes trust, connection, attachment, and relaxation. It plays a critical role in social behavior and female reproduction. In fact, women have more oxytocin than men.
Oxytocin has many health benefits, and most of us need more. This article will dive into oxytocin, when it’s released, its benefits, and how to increase oxytocin naturally.
What Is Oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a peptide hormone, a short protein chain composed of nine amino acids. It’s a hormone, meaning it’s released by an endocrine gland, travels through the blood, and binds to cells elsewhere in the body.
Ok, enough of the nerdy stuff, why should you care about oxytocin? If you like feeling Oh, so good and combating the negative effects of cortisol, well, you’re going to want to know about oxytocin.
Benefits of Releasing Oxytocin
What does oxytocin do? The benefits of oxytocin reach far and wide, impacting overall health and well-being. From increasing your connection to your child, pet, or lover to helping you feel more in love with life, oxytocin is the it girl of social connection.
Oxytocin benefits include:
- Supporting growth and development
- Has a positive impact on social behavior, including promoting trust and empathy
- Promotes healing and cell growth
- Pain management and increases pain tolerance
- Physiological and psychological adaptation
- Promoting immune health
- Supports a healthy mood and those “warm and fuzzy” feelings we get about others
- Nervous system health
- Lowers blood pressure
- Aids in breastfeeding
- Helps with child labor by stimulating the uterus to contract
Further, oxytocin has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
One of the primary benefits of oxytocin is that it helps you manage stress. Engaging in oxytocin-promoting strategies when you experience increased cortisol helps you to build resilience to stress (more about these strategies below).
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Where Is Oxytocin Produced?
Oxytocin binds to oxytocin receptors which causes us to feel good, promotes social behavior, and contributes to overall health.
As I shared before, oxytocin has a lot of benefits, including promoting a healthy mood, bonding, and aiding in childbirth.
How Long Does Oxytocin Last?
The effects of oxytocin may last a short or long period, depending on the situation and stimulus. Interestingly, oxytocin release leads to more oxytocin release, so the more often you get a burst, the longer it might last .
When Is Oxytocin Released?
Oxytocin is released in response to feel-good activities such as touch, spending time with friends, meditation, exercise, and more. Let’s look at important times in a woman’s life when she experiences an oxytocin surge.
Oxytocin is sometimes referred to as the love hormone or cuddle hormone. It’s released in response to sexual activity and cuddling, including hugging, kissing, foreplay, and orgasm.
The oxytocin released during orgasm explains why you may bond quickly with your partner and feel stress slip away. In a review of studies looking at oxytocin and sexual arousal, higher levels of oxytocin were measured during orgasm in both men and women.
But orgasms aren’t necessary, as many pleasurable acts can set this little feel-good hormone free. This may explain why many people report a sense of immense satisfaction when engaging in sexual activity that doesn’t result in orgasm.
Oxytocin is known to be released during long hugs. One study also found “gentle, massage-like head stroking” to increase oxytocin levels. The bottom line is that you don’t need to have sex to get the benefits of oxytocin from a physical connection.
Pregnancy & Labor
Oxytocin plays a critical role in pregnancy and labor. Oxytocin is more active in women than men because of its role in female reproduction. Estrogen promotes oxytocin. When estrogen binds to beta receptors in the brain, it leads to increased production of oxytocin in the brain.
Oxytocin during labor promotes uterine contractions and helps labor and vaginal delivery progress. As the uterus contracts, it signals the brain to produce more oxytocin, leading to more intense contractions that become closer.
Oxytocin levels after birth remain high to promote the contractions that promote milk production and letdown. Skin-to-skin contact with your baby also supports oxytocin for both of you.
As your baby nurses, your brain produces oxytocin which tells your breasts to release milk. High levels of oxytocin are released while your baby nurses and then stop until you nurse again. Of course, baby snuggles in between can keep the oxytocin flowing, too.
Oxytocin and breastfeeding are inseparable, but oxytocin is helpful for both mom and baby in other ways by bonding them together.
For parents, oxytocin helps the brain make connections that impact parenting behaviors. It promotes nurturing and helps parents protect and care for their infants as they grow.
The baby’s oxytocin system develops in response to early life experiences of bonding and attachment. These early life connections influence social behavior and emotions later in life.
Oxytocin and Other “Happy Hormones”
Dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins are considered “happy hormones,” although oxytocin is the only one that is technically a hormone. Dopamine and serotonin are feel-good neurotransmitters. Endorphins are peptides (like oxytocin) that bind to opiate receptors.
Dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins are often released at the same time as oxytocin, including with physical touch, orgasm, exercise, and other pleasurable activities.
Do You Need Oxytocin Replacement Therapy?
Oxytocin replacement therapy is being studied for its therapeutic benefit.
Conditions and disease states that may benefit from oxytocin include:
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Postpartum mood disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Chronic pain
- Metabolic disorders
- Digestive disorders
- Infectious disease
- Heart disease
More research is needed to clarify the benefits and risks, but the use of oxytocin-like molecules that affect oxytocin receptors continues to be a focus of pharmaceutical research.
In addition, your naturopathic doctor can test your oxytocin levels. Oxytocin preparations are available from compounding pharmacies.
Taking exogenous oxytocin isn’t the only way to increase oxytocin levels. There are many natural approaches that I’ll discuss below.
Low Oxytocin Symptoms
An oxytocin deficiency can be challenging to diagnose as it might be a downstream effect of stress, lifestyle behaviors, epigenetic programming, and other factors.
Low oxytocin symptoms, signs, and clues might include:
- Difficulty showing affection
- Anxiety and fear
- Low sexual desire
- Difficulty with orgasm
- Increased appetite and sugar cravings
- Stress and low resilience to stress
- Limited social interactions
- Feelings of disconnection
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Many of these signs could be related to thyroid, adrenal, and sex hormone imbalances. Working with your naturopathic provider is important so you don’t miss any underlying factors.
The benefits of oxytocin are vast, and there isn’t a risk of having too much oxytocin from implementing these natural methods. Here are some of my favorite ways to boost oxytocin levels.
Cuddle Your Pet
Living with pets has many positive benefits for your health. Oxytocin plays a role in bonding with animals as it does between humans. When you cuddle your pet, pet them, and engage in play and connection, your production of oxytocin increases.
In fact, there is abundant research looking at oxytocin in dogs and their owners. Both dog owners and dogs release oxytocin during interactions. This may account for some of the healing benefits of pets and why therapy dogs are used in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and nursing homes.
Oxytocin plays a role in hunger, cravings, and eating behaviors. Natural oxytocin production tends to decrease appetite. Oxytocin used as a drug therapy also reduces food intake.
And on the other hand, food, especially pleasurable foods and meals enjoyed with loved ones, tend to increase oxytocin.
Chocolate is certainly pleasurable and boosts happy hormones, including dopamine and serotonin. It is also a good source of magnesium, which supports oxytocin action. I’ll discuss magnesium more below.
As if you needed another reason to eat chocolate! Choose dark chocolate for the best benefit.
Maintain a Healthy Diet
When you maintain a healthy diet, you support hormone balance, blood sugar, reduce stress, and provide the nutrients needed for all the processes in your body. Proper nutrition is a foundational aspect of overall health.
Below I’ll discuss specific foods that increase oxytocin levels because they contain the micronutrients required for oxytocin function. These are foods rich in vitamin C, vitamin D, and magnesium. Grab my free hormone-balancing meal plan for recipes rich in these vital nutrients!
Build Positive Relationships
Positive relationships are another way to stimulate the release of oxytocin. These include romantic relationships, friendships, and positive social interactions with coworkers, neighbors, and others.
Oxytocin is released in social circumstances to promote bonding and community. A great way to increase oxytocin is to get out in the world, enjoy the company of others, and have fun.
Yoga, meditation, mindfulness, breathing exercises, and other similar practices promote oxytocin release. They help you to relax, manage stress, and connect with yourself.
Yoga is being studied as a form of therapy because of its oxytocin-releasing effects. One study in people with schizophrenia showed that yoga therapy as an add-on treatment improved oxytocin levels.
Vitamins that Support Oxytocin Production
Several nutrients help promote oxytocin production and metabolism. These can be obtained through the diet or used as supplements for oxytocin.
Vitamin C is an essential cofactor for oxytocin synthesis. With enough vitamin C, you may be able to produce sufficient oxytocin when needed.
The following foods are good sources of vitamin C:
- Rose hips
- Bell peppers
- Acerola cherries
Vitamin D is critical for brain health, mood, hormone regulation, and more. Many Americans are vitamin D deficient, affecting many aspects of health including bone density, gene expression, and even hormone balance.
The best food sources of vitamin D are liver, fatty fish, cod liver oil, egg yolks, and grass-fed dairy. Some foods like milk and orange juice may be fortified with vitamin D. You also produce vitamin D through skin exposure to sunlight.
Because of an indoor lifestyle and modern diet, many people benefit from a vitamin D supplement. I recommend vitamin D3 combined with vitamin K2, which is what you’ll find in my Vitamin D3/K2 liquid. Be sure to have your provider check your serum levels and dose accordingly.
Magnesium helps to reduce stress, relax the nervous system, and calm the body so you can engage in oxytocin-releasing activities. Magnesium also modulates oxytocin receptors, making them more likely to bind with oxytocin.
Magnesium is found in dark leafy greens, legumes, nuts and seeds, avocados, bone broth, and other whole foods. And of course, dark chocolate! However, magnesium is another nutrient that many are deficient in because of the modern food supply.
When choosing a magnesium supplement, I suggest magnesium bisglycinate chelate, the main form you’ll find in Magnesium Plus.
Oxytocin is critical for human evolution and survival. It bonds us as a tribe and allows for healthy reproduction and parenting. Oxytocin plays a vital role in women’s health from orgasm, to labor, nursing, and beyond.
We all benefit from boosting oxytocin production in the brain, and there are many natural, highly enjoyable strategies to do so. Simple acts of physical touch, petting a dog, hugging a friend, taking a yoga class, and eating dark chocolate make us feel good and promote the benefits of oxytocin.
In addition, we can support healthy oxytocin levels by ensuring we have enough vitamin C, vitamin D, and magnesium daily through food and supplements.
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