I have the structural formula for oxytocin hanging in my office. It is my very favorite hormone. Its not that I think it’s more important than all the rest, I just happen to love it. It is commonly understood as a polypeptide hormone released from the posterior pituitary gland, which stimulates uterine contraction during labor and the ejection of milk from the mammary glands during breast-feeding, but that’s not why I like it. Synthetic forms of this hormone such as Pitocin are often given during hospitalized childbirths to induce labor and to speed up delivery, but that’s certainly not why I like it. Based on these functions alone one could argue that oxytocin is a very important hormone, since without labor contractions and flowing breast milk we humans wouldn’t have survived long as a species, but I’m into Oxytocin for other reasons, which I feel are equally crucial to our long term survival.
Oxytocin is the hormone of social bonding, which includes touch, for almost all mammals. Not just between mother and child, but also between other kin, pairs of monogamous mammals, and close same sex friendships (C. Crockford, 2013). More research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms at play here but it is thought that oxytocin helps your brain to encode memories of positive social behavior and thereby facilitates long-term social bonding. (Adam J Guastella, 2008) Oxytocin levels seem to be context dependent. The closer you are to someone (emotionally, not genetically), the more you get a bigger oxytocin bang for your nurturing touch buck (assuming you have endocrine mechanisms similar in function to those of a wild chimpanzee, which you probably do). (C. Crockford, 2013) Oxytocin is thought to play a role in the “tend and befriend” response to stress, involving engaging in nurturing activities that protect the self and offspring, which increases safety and reduces stress. (Richard J Contrada, 2010). Those tender moments of positive social interaction between you and the mammals you’re closest to are truly valuable for your emotional and your physical well-being.
One valuable role oxytocin plays is that it has an anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) effect, thought to be moderated within in the amygdala. It also counters the effect of sympathetic stress in the body by decreasing heart rate and blood pressure and stimulating activity in the gastrointestinal tract, and the endocrine pancreas. It can also increase nociceptive thresholds through an enhancement effect on endogenous opioids, which is thought to be related to the periaqueductal gray and to the dorsal horn of the spinal cord. (Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg, 2005) Anything that reduces pain and anxiety scores points with me, especially if it does so while also facilitating a deeper sense of social support.
Oxytocin systems in the brains of adult women who were exposed to neglect and abuse in early childhood are shown to be impaired, most significantly in survivors of emotional abuse. (C. Heim, 2008) Traumatized children can struggle with a variety of vulnerabilities as they grow up, and many abusive parents were themselves abused as children. It’s a desperately vicious cycle, often passed down through generations and to those in the thick of it, it can feel quite hopeless. Understanding that proper functioning of these endocrine systems is impacted for women by childhood trauma can be rather empowering, especially as science begins to give us some concrete strategies for oxytocin stimulation. For example, just 15 minutes of moderate-pressure massage on the upper back has been shown to significantly increase oxytocin levels in the blood. (Vera Morheen, 2012) This means that the rapport between the massage therapist and the client, along with the therapeutic touch itself, can serve to reduce pain globally, stimulate intrinsic restorative processes, lessen their anxiety, and create felt sense memories of positive social interaction. If the client happens to be a female survivor of childhood abuse (particularly emotional abuse), this therapeutic dynamic may be particularly helpful.
Current research is outing Oxytocin as a key player, particularly for women, in the understanding of how our interpersonal relationships impact our physiology. It is abundant in new mothers, and levels are thought to rise in mammals engaged in care taking behaviors like nursing, skin to skin contact, grooming and massage. To me the effectors that release this hormone represent what’s missing from many of our modern western lives. We have forgotten the importance of our need to take care of each other. The roles Oxytocin plays in the female body to me represent the tax we pay for this. We are all stressed, anxious, lonely and hurting. The current research enables me to make a somewhat plausible argument that we are biochemically designed to be in mutually synergistic relationships with one another. If we could make forming long-term bonds, and taking care of other a priority we just might find ourselves with a greater sense of connection and ease in our own lives. As a survivor of childhood abuse who deals with anxiety and chronic pain, I am inspired. As mother to a little girl just beginning to explore this uncertain world, I am comforted. As a Restorative Movement Teacher, and a massage therapist in training, I am fascinated. As a member of the human species in these turbulent times, I am hopeful. This fancy little molecule makes the perfect metaphor for darn near everything I’d like to think I stand for as a person.
Adam J Guastella, P. B. (2008). Oxytocin Enhances the Encoding of Positive Social Memories in Humans. Biological Psychiatry , 64 (2).
C. Crockford, R. W. (2013). Urinary Oxytocin and social bonding in related and unrelated wild chimpanzees. Proceedings of the Royal Society B , 280 (1755).
C. Heim, L. Y. (2008, Oct 28). Lower CSF oxytocin concentrations in women with a history of childhood abuse. Molecular Psychaitry .
Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg, M. P. (2005). Oxytocin, a mediator of anti-stress, well-being, social interaction, growth and healing. Zeitschrift fur Psychosomatische Medizin und Psychotherapie , 51 (1).
Richard J Contrada, A. B. (2010, Sept 29). The Handbook of Stress Science Biology, Psychology, and Health.
Vera Morheen, L. E. (2012). Massage Increases Oxytocin and Reduces Adrenocorticotropin Hormone in Humans. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicing , 18 (6).