I’ve written quite a lot about oxytocin, which also goes by the name of ‘love hormone’, ‘cuddle chemical’, ‘molecule of kindness’, or any other affectionate term that implies something about bonding and connecting.
If you ever wondered about those names, it’s because we produce oxytocin when we’re feeling love or connection (with a human, animal, tree, spiritual diety) and also when we hug.
So here’s a little summary of some of the healthy things that happen in our bodies when we produce oxytocin.
1) It makes people seem more attractive
One study gave people a dose of oxytocin and then showed them photographs of men and women, asking them to rate their attractiveness. A different group were given saline instead of oxytocin, as a control. The oxytocin group gave the men and women higher attractiveness ratings than did those who got the saline.
2) It makes us more generous
A study in the field of ‘neuroeconomics’ – where scientists study the brain while people make economic decisions – found that when people were given a squirt of oxytocin before they made an economic decision, where they had to decide on how they were going to share a sum of money, they were around 80% more generous than others who received a saline placebo.
3) It makes us more trusting
In an economics game known as the ‘Trust Game’, participants given a squirt of oxytocin were found to be significantly more trusting than those given saline. Of those in the saline group, 21% showed the maximal trust level, yet 45% of those who received oxytocin showed the maximal trust level.
4) It improves digestion
A little-known fact is that oxytocin and oxytocin receptors are found all throughout the GI tract. It plays an important role in the digestion of food (gastric motility and gastric emptyping). Research shows that in the absence of adequate levels of oxytocin, the whole digestive process slows down (known as gastric dysmotility).
In fact, some children with recurring tummy trouble or inflammatory bowel disease have been found to have low levels of oxytocin in their bloodstream. Oxytocin has as even been linked with IBS.
You may have heard of the old wisdom that you shouldn’t eat if you’ve just had a fight with a loved one. This is why. When we have a conflict, we reduce our levels of oxytocin, thereby making digestion a little more problematic.
Maybe if you want to improve your digestion, why not enjoy a meal with family or friends, or at least give someone a heartfelt hug before you start eating and again immediately afterwards.
5) It speeds up wound healing
Oxytocin also helps wound healing. It plays a key role in ‘angiogenesis’, which is the growth of blood vessels or re-growth of them after an injury.
Research shows that wounds take longer to heal when people are under stress or amid an emotional conflict, which is associated with lower oxytocin levels. In one study of couples, physical wounds of those who showed the most conflict behaviour healed 40% slower than wounds in those who weren’t in conflict. Other studies show that skin wounds heal even faster when we enjoy positive social interaction, which are times when we produce more oxytocin.
6) It’s good for the heart
It’s also very good for the heart. Oxytocin is a cardioprotective hormone, in that it protects the cardiovascular system. Oxytocin dilates the blood vessels, thereby lowering blood pressure, and also helps sweep free radicals and inflammation out of the arteries. FYI, free radicals and inflammation can cause cardiovascular disease.
How to produce oxytocin
We produce oxytocin every day. It flows when you show empathy or compassion, when you are kind or genuinely pleasant, when you show affection, when you hug. Love is not the only thing we make in the intimate act. We also make oxytocin.
I find it amazing that this simple hormone, that we generate through really any heart-centred display of gentleness or affection, produces all of the above effects.
Animals, and especially dogs, help us produce it too. Research shows that when we play with dogs, oxytocin levels shoot up in both the human and the dog.
This is probably why studies show that having a pet hugely benefits the heart. In one study, in patients who had spent time in a cardiac unit, after discharge, the chances of survival in those who had a pet was 400% higher. In fact, among many ways to improve heart health, Dr Mimi Guarneri, founder of the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine and author of the book, ‘The Heart Speaks’, recommends having a dog.
Those of you who have been following some of my blogs will know that my beloved dog, Oscar, passed away at 2 years of age just 5 months ago. I enjoyed a very strong bond with Oscar. Before he arrived in my life, I never would have thought we could actually fall in love with animals, but Oscar’s presence in my life changed that.
I love the fact that dogs, and in fact all animals that we bond with, help us produce oxytocin and we, in turn, help them produce it. There’s something beautiful in this, in how we need each other, and in that the bond we create actually moulds our biology. It reminds me of why we need to see all humans and all animals as our family. It also adds a wee bit of fuel to my guiding principle in life: whatever you do, do it with kindness.
The links above are references for the source scientific papers or articles or books where a study was cited. All references and full explanations, as well as references to many more studies, can be found in my book, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You’, which shares hundreds of pieces of research showing how kindness, empathy, compassion, and love are healthy for us, as well sharing some inspirational short stories of kindness.