The first time many people hear about the hormone Oxytocin is during childbirth education classes. “Oxytocin,” the teacher informs, “is the hormone which causes your uterus to contract.” OK, good to know. Oxytocin is what’s largely responsible for facilitating a mother to give birth. For enabling us to meet our baby. Trippy.
And that’s not all. In fact, oxytocin is associated with a slew of other relationship-oriented phenomena – so integral to human social bonding that it’s dubbed the “love hormone,” or even the “cuddle chemical.”
Oxytocin is so prevalent that most people aren’t even aware of its vast role. Therefore, we’ve compiled a list of interactions that release oxytocin.
- Orgasm. Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus and released via the posterior pituitary gland. This description conjures up images of 6h grade sex ed videos, right? And for good reason: Oxytocin is largely associated with the reproductive, or sexual, organs. For both women and men, orgasm and oxytocin go hand in hand. While the mechanism isn’t fully understood, that feeling of orgasmic pleasure is attributed to oxytocin.
- Skin-to-skin touch. Non-sexual feelings of closeness also release oxytocin. Specifically, massage is equated with increased oxytocin levels in the blood. In addition, with a newborn, experts speak about the importance of skin-to-skin bonding. And for the rest of us – any hug releases oxytocin. So, hug away and feel happier for it.
- Birth Contractions. As mentioned above, labor contractions are triggered by the release of oxytocin. What’s more is that scientists still haven’t been able to definitively pinpoint what triggers oxytocin to be released to cause uterine contractions, and this is one reason a woman’s due date remains a guessing game. Of note: A synthetic version of oxytocin, usually pitocin, is used medically in order to induce or augment labor, although its feeling and functionality are different than real oxytocin.
- Breastfeeding. Nipple stimulation from nursing a baby releases oxytocin (read: “mini-orgasm”). Oxytocin plays two roles in breastfeeding: a) Causes the milk-producing letdown reflex, b) mother-baby bonding via skin-to-skin contact.
- Having a dog. Heard of pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy? It’s the idea of using animals to help people heal from mental or emotional hardships, or even disorders. And it could be the oxytocin that’s at play. As a case in point, one of the reasons dogs are so popular is that gazing into their eyes releases oxytocin, similar to looking into a human baby’s eyes.
All of this makes us wonder: Without oxytocin, where would we be? Since oxytocin is associated with so many feelings of social connection, as well as birthing and feeding babies, perhaps it’s oxytocin that makes the world go ’round. Or at least it’s what makes us feel the love. Here’s to feeling oxytocin as much as you’d like. Apropos, Happy Valentine’s Day!
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