Oxytocin, the “Cuddle Hormone”

Know that warm, fuzzy feeling that comes after a hug or cuddle? That’s oxytocin, often called the “cuddle hormone”, working its magic!

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You had a bad day, but then you’re cuddling with someone you like and suddenly you feel a LOT better. Why is that? Psychologically we as humans of course like the emotional bonding aspect of physical closeness, but it is also a physical reaction. When we cuddle, hug, kiss, hold hands etc. oxytocin kicks in.

What is Oxytocin?

Oxytocin is a hormone. In daily vocabulary, it is also known as the “cuddle hormone”, the “love hormone”, the “moral molecule,” and the “feel-good hormone”. Simply put, when we engage in physical affection, such as hugging or kissing, our bodies produce oxytocin, and then the pituitary glands release it. This process creates the warm, fuzzy feelings and bonding experience we associate with being close to someone. Interestingly, research suggests that oxytocin has a compounding effect, meaning the more physical contact you have, the more oxytocin is released, leading to an increased desire for further affection—a classic snowball effect.

What Causes Oxytocin to Be Released?

What Does the ‘Cuddle Hormone’ Do For Us?

The release of oxytocin not only contributes to our temporary happiness but also fosters the growth of meaningful relationships. Apart from its psychological benefits, the “cuddle hormone” may even help the body itself.

Oxytocin & Orgasms

Studies indicate that oxytocin levels rise in both men and women following orgasm. Additionally, in men, oxytocin can enhance sperm movement and intensify erections.

Hugs For a Healthier Heart

Research suggests that women who frequently hug their partners, thereby triggering oxytocin release, tend to have lower resting heart rates than those who do not. It is not certain that oxytocin release is the key reason for this, but it highlights the potential of hugs for promoting heart health.

Snuggle Away Sickness & Stress

Snuggling not only boosts oxytocin levels but also suppresses the release of the stress hormone cortisol. As a result, you experience reduced stress levels and achieve an overall sense of calm. Since cortisol can weaken the immune system, reducing cortisol through oxytocin helps restore balance in the body, making you less likely to become sick.

Mother-Child Bonding

Throughout pregnancy, lactation and childbirth, oxytocin is very present in the mother’s body. Its levels are particularly high during the first trimester, suggesting that the body releases this abundance of the “love hormone” to foster bonding between mother and child. Interactive behaviours between mother and child, such as singing to the child or stroking the stomach, also increase the infant’s oxytocin levels, creating a positive connection between the two.

Father-Child Bonding

Men with higher oxytocin levels are more inclined to engage in close, interactive play with their children.

Hold Each Other, Sleep Better

Higher levels of oxytocin have also been linked to sleeping quickly and deeply. Some studies also connect the hormone with a reduced occurrence of nightmares.

Fidelity?

Some researchers propose that the strong bond facilitated by oxytocin encourages individuals to want to be loyal to their partner(s).

Cuddle More, Eat Less

Current studies are investigating the relationship between oxytocin and eating habits. It appears that the hormone reduces activity in the hypothalamus, the region associated with hunger, while boosting activity in areas of the brain linked to impulse control.

Potential Treatments With the “Feel-Good-Hormone”

Although oxytocin’s therapeutic applications haven’t been proven, researchers are exploring its potential in alleviating pain associated with depression and anxiety disorders. Additionally, oxytocin nasal sprays are being studied for their effectiveness in addressing the social symptoms of autism.

Oxytocin’s Dark Side

It may not be all kisses and hugs! Research has unveiled its involvement in shaping our social behaviours, both inclusive and exclusive. For instance, in a study, Dutch students given oxytocin spray exhibited favourable feelings toward fictional characters with Dutch names but negative sentiments toward those with German and Arab names in a short story they read. This suggests oxytocin may heighten affinity toward the in-group while fostering suspicion of the out-group. However, who belongs to the in-group and who belongs to the out-group strongly depends on the situation. Neuroscientist Robert Froemke, PhD, suggests that oxytocin may act more as an enhancer of existing emotions rather than solely a “love hormone”.

Are There Any Differences in the Way that Vulva-Owners and Penis-Owners Experience Oxytocin?

Yes, individuals assigned female at birth typically have higher levels of oxytocin. However, the triggers for oxytocin release are similar across sexes, and how they are experienced appears comparable. Interestingly, people assigned male at birth may also utilise oxytocin to identify competitors and activate their fight-or-flight response, unlike people assigned female at birth.

So... What Have We Learnt?

Oxytocin is a powerful and complicated hormone with the potential to foster lasting relationships and positive effects on the body. Yet, this “cuddle hormone” can also influence strong in-group and out-group dynamics.

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