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 day-to-day vocabulary it is also known as the ‘cuddle hormone,’ ‘love hormone’, ‘moral molecule,’ or the ‘feel-good hormone.’ Simply said, when we are being physically affectionate with someone our hypothalamus produces oxytocin and it is then released by the pituitary glands. This process creates the warmth, fuzzy feelings, and bonding experience you get when you are close with someone. The more physical contact you have (hug, kiss etc.) the more oxytocin you release, so the more comfortable you are. Research has also shown that oxytocin has a compounding nature, this means the more you cuddle etc. the more you want to (so a typical snowball effect).
What causes oxytocin to be released?
The release of oxytocin is not only helpful to our temporary happiness, but also allows meaningful relationships to grow. Other than having psychological benefits the ‘cuddle hormone’ may even be able to help our body itself.
Oxytocin and Orgasms
Research suggests that oxytocin increases in both men and women after orgasming. It also increases sperm movement in men and intensifies erections.
Hugs For a Healthier Heart
A study has shown that women who regularly hug their partners (meaning they regularly release oxytocin) had a lower resting heart rate than those who did not. It is not certain that oxytocin release is the key reason for this, but it shows that hugs have the potential for maintaining a healthier heart.
Snuggle Away Sickness And Stress
Snuggling not only produces more oxytocin but it also inhibits the release of the stress hormone (cortisol). So, your stress is reduced and you reach an all-around calmer state. Cortisol also weakens the immune system, this means that when it is reduced through oxytocin the body is balanced again and you are less likely to become sick.
‘Love-Hormone’: Mother-Child Bonding
During pregnancy, lactating, and childbirth oxytocin is also very present in the mothers body. In the first trimester it is the highest, it is assumed that the body releases this amount of the ‘love hormone’ to foster the bonding between mother and child. The interaction between mother and child (in the form of singing to the child, stroking the stomach etc.) also causes the infant’s oxytocin levels to rise. This creates a positive connection between the two.
Men who have higher oxytocin levels are also more likely to play closely with their child.
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 people having less nightmares because of it.
Researchers have argued that the in-depth bond that oxytocin fosters leads people to want to be loyal to their partner(s).
Cuddle More, Eat Less
Currently studies are looking into the relation between oxytocin and eating habits. It appears that the hormone reduces activity in the hypothalamus that is related to hunger and increases activity in ‘impulse control’ sections of the brain.
Potential Treatments with the ‘Feel-Good-Hormone’
Oxytocin is not a proven treatment yet, but researchers are currently exploring its uses in treating the pain related to depression and anxiety disorders, as well as the social symptoms of autism, in the form of nose sprays.
Oxytocin’s Dark Side
It may not be all kisses and hugs – researchers have shown that the powerful hormone also plays a very complex role in our social in- and out-group behavior. For instance, a group of Dutch students received a dose of oxytocin spray and were asked about their feelings towards fictional characters of a short story they had to read after. The group had positive feelings towards fictional characters with Dutch names and negative feelings towards characters with German and Arab names. This shows that through oxytocin positive feelings towards what people identify as the in-group are fostered, whereas suspicion towards the ‘out-group’ is created. However, who belongs to the in-group and who belongs to the out-group strongly depends on the situation. The neuroscientist Robert Froemke, PhD, also portrays the hormone as more of an amplifier of the previous feelings of the person than as a ‘love-hormone.’
Are there differences in the way men and women experience oxytocin?
Yes, people with the biological female sex typically have higher levels of oxytocin. Yet, the triggers of oxytocin correspond in both sexes the way they experience it also appears to be a similar experience for them. People with the biologically male sex also seem to identify competitors with the help of their oxytocin release and activate their fight or flight mechanisms with help of the hormone, women do not.
Sooo….What have we found out?
We have learned that oxytocin is a very powerful and complicated hormone that can help us build long-term relationships and has the potential to have positive effects on our body. The ‘cuddle hormone,’ however, also has the ability to trick us into stronger in- and out- grouping behavior.