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Ode to Oxytocin

I learned about oxytocin early in my midwifery training. It’s probably the single most important hormone for birth and breastfeeding – it acts as a chemical messenger to cause labor contractions and the milk-ejection reflex. In fact, you might say that it’s the most powerful hormone any of us encounter. And recent studies have investigated oxytocin’s role in various emotions that promote well-being, including love, trust, and social connection.

I first became aware that oxytocin wasn’t just about birth when I read Temple Grandin’s fascinating book Animals in Translation back in 2004. You may have heard of Temple Grandin because her life and story were recently featured in an HBO drama. I haven’t seen it, but I highly recommend that you learn more about her and her fascinating work. She’s a writer, a university professor, and an animal behavior researcher and consultant. She is also profoundly autistic.

Although her autism creates a barrier in communicating with humans, she feels it helped her be more successful in communicating with other animals. She says, “Animal behavior was the right field for me, because what I was missing in social understanding I could make up for in understanding animals.”

One area of her research looked at how pets might improve the health of their owners. I’ll never forget being astounded by her finding that “A dog’s oxytocin levels rise when his owner pets him, and petting his dog raises the owner’s oxytocin, too. It is possible that dogs make humans into nicer people and better parents because oxytocin is important to humans.”

When women have babies their oxytocin levels shoot up right before birth, and research shows that those high levels spark maternal warmth and care. Oxytocin produces caring ‘maternal’ behavior in men, too. So for parents, Ms. Grandin maintains, “owning and petting a dog is probably like getting a ‘good parent’ shot every day. Dogs are probably good for marriage for the same reason.” (Temple Grandin, Animals in Translation, p. 108) Of course, you don’t need a dog to get an oxytocin boost – positive interactions among humans – even without touch – can stimulate our bodies to produce this wonderful hormone.

So what exactly happens when levels of oxytocin increase in the bloodstream? The therapeutic effects include lowered heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormone levels. Quite simply, it makes us healthier, happier and more able to experience joyful connection with others. In fact, current research shows that oxytocin is involved in the processes behind social bonding among all mammalian species.

High levels of oxytocin seem to increase calm and nurturing behaviors. If we have enough in our bloodstream, it can quiet the fear circuitry in our brains, and then when we look around we see opportunities for peaceful connection instead of threatening menace. When our predisposition to judge and find fault is held in check, we are more likely to look for, notice and respond to friendly exchanges. After each positive exchange, more oxytocin is released, and we are even more likely to reach out and interact with others in a cooperative and nurturing manner.

An amazing thing about oxytocin is that the positive experiences it encourages apply to all species of animals. This means oxytocin can create and sustain a social feedback system that knows no boundaries. It contributes to a sense that we are able to connect with animals, to understand them, and that they understand us, even though we don’t share a spoken language.

We can all improve our well-being by forming meaningful connections with any being. Studies show that oxytocin is the reason why people with pets tend to recover more quickly from illness, why married people tend to live longer, and why support groups benefit those who attend them.

Oxytocin, which was once thought to have a narrow role in the workings of labor and lactation, is now being called the “touch,” “bonding” and “love” hormone. You know what the best part is? It doesn’t come in a pill and it doesn’t cost a thing. All you need to do is care for another person. Appreciation, loving touch, sustained eye contact – all raise oxytocin levels. And the more you give, the more you get. How great is that?!

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