Oxytocin is known as the feel-good love drug, the hug and snuggle hormone, the neurotransmitter brain chemical that produces those warm and fuzzy feelings we get from an embrace or from a purring kitten nestling in our lap. Oxytocin is involved in every hands-on thing we do, from friendly hugs to non-sexual cuddling to childbirth and breastfeeding. Oxytocin is also associated with empathy, trust, and relationship-building. In other words, it’s essential stuff for our total health.
Oxytocin is a neuropeptide, a protein-like molecule that brain cells use to communicate with each other. Produced in the hypothalamus area of the brain and secreted by the pituitary, it’s present in women at higher levels than men which makes perfect physiological sense when you consider the critical role oxytocin plays in labor, childbirth, and mother-infant bonding.
Fortunately, lots of things in life can turn on this one-two-three mind-body punch. When you’re attracted to another person, for example, your brain releases dopamine, your serotonin levels rise, and oxytocin is produced. This brings forth a surge of positive emotion. This cascade has the power to damp down stress and promote relaxation. It also increases our sense of trust and stability in the world. And if you are in a love relationship, it gets better, because the more time you spend with your partner, says social psychologist Jade Wu, Ph.D., the more oxytocin you produce; the more oxytocin you produce, the more you desire said partner. Now there’s a behavior loop we like! And that’s not all, High oxytocin levels increase your tolerance for pain, improve your ability to show trust, empathy, and openness, and even promote creativity, according to research by the American Psychological Association. Researchers are also looking into oxytocin as a possible treatment for alcohol and substance abuse disorders.
Sadly, oxytocin and all its health-enhancing effects have been sorely missing in these pandemic times. A peck on the cheek, an innocent hug, or a warm handshake seem like nostalgic gestures from the past. Certainly, more intimate relations like sex (where oxytocin shines) have been harder to come by for many of us.
And for all of us, no hands-on is hands-down no good. If you’re running low on the love hormone, you could get physically sick, feel spiritually sad, or mentally anxious or depressed.
But there are healthy drug-free do-it-yourself ways to naturally fill up your oxytocin tank before running on empty.
Related: “Letters Against Isolation”
- Take a Yoga class. Try a partner yoga class if a studio near you offers one. Solo yoga is healing, but it’s even better with a friend.
- Try Music. Listening to it or better, making it. Even better yet, play that ukulele or harmonica with others. It improves the ability to create social bonds, which in turn gives your oxytocin reserves a bump.
- Get or give a massage: Whether you get it or give it, you benefit. And you don’t need a pricey pro. You let your fingers do the walking with him/her and he/she returns the favor.
- Watch a tearjerker. Alone or with a partner. Romantic emotion-arousing movies are sure-fire oxytocin boosters.
- Share your feelings with a friend, relative, or lover, through a conversation in person or online, preferably face to face. This is powerful medicine.
- Bond with a friend(s) over a unique experience. Take a hike, visit a museum together, go fishing, or take in an outdoor concert. The list is endless and costs little or nothing.
- Do some socializing at the local pet shelter. Working one on one with cats and dogs (even bunnies and hamsters) has powerful oxytocin-building benefits
- Send a handwritten card to a friend just as a gesture of friendship. Or give a call to a homebound elder in your community (The social services department or local senior center should have names). Five minutes of your time can make a difference for both giver and receiver.
- Bake or cook something tasty for a friend or relative or good neighbor. This sort of sharing and caring yields bonding benefits.