Oxytocin is known for influencing the bonds of romantic and familial relationships. A 2012 study found that couples in the initial stages of romance, or the “honeymoon phase,” had higher levels of oxytocin.
It’s also released during sexual activity, which can lead to intense orgasms. And it helps with parenthood, triggering contractions during childbirth and stimulating lactation so new mothers can bond with their babies.
1. It’s a bonding hormone
Most commonly associated with cuddling, oxytocin has many different roles in the body. It triggers contractions during childbirth, stimulates lactation so a mother can nurse her baby, and causes the powerful bonding that takes place between parents and their children. It also causes that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you’re with the person you love.
The “cuddle drug” can also help you form stronger relationships and feel more trusting of others. Researchers found that people with high levels of natural oxytocin tend to cooperate more with their partners and are less likely to notice negative social cues from others.
Oxytocin can even increase feelings of fidelity in men. In one study, heterosexual men in committed relationships were given a nasal spray of oxytocin before being shown pictures of their partners and other females. The men who received oxytocin were more likely to view their partners as more attractive than the other females. They also showed less interest in other women.
We’ve long known that oxytocin facilitates pair-bonding in animals, and more recently, it’s been linked to bonding between romantic partners. In fact, one study found that oxytocin spray (used as the infamous “cuddle drug”) can lead to better sex for people at every stage of their relationship—even those who’ve been together for years.
It’s also been associated with increased monogamy in men. When heterosexual men in committed relationships were given a dose of oxytocin, they were more likely to be monogamous when shown pictures of their partners and also photos of women they’d been dating or working with for years.
Non-romantic forms of physical contact can trigger oxytocin release, too—even a handshake or pat on the back. However, it’s likely that the more intimate the touch, the more potent the hit of oxytocin. For example, touching the head, stomach, nipples, genitals, and inner thighs are more likely to produce stronger hits of oxytocin than other parts of the body.
2. It’s a calming hormone
While we usually think of oxytocin as a love hormone, it’s actually one of the body’s most effective calming agents. It’s the reason why new mothers experience a surge of this hormone when breastfeeding their babies, and it’s also responsible for the comfort we feel when being held by loved ones.
In fact, studies have shown that oxytocin can reduce the brain’s fear center. When researchers showed a group of students images that were either scary or reassuring, those who received a snort of the love hormone saw their friends as more reassuring.
Interestingly, oxytocin can also help with memory recall. This is why people find it easier to remember faces that they are familiar with, but not names. In fact, holding a grudge can tank your oxytocin, which is why forgiveness is so important. When you forgive, your oxytocin levels rise again, which could explain why it feels so good to let go of those pesky bad habits.
Oxytocin is a natural stress reducer and helps to keep us calm. Studies suggest that those who struggle with anxiety might have lower levels of this hormone.
Oxytocin also promotes empathy and trust, making it a good tool to help us overcome the negativity so common in our culture. People with low oxytocin levels tend to notice more negative social cues, while those with high levels are more likely to cooperate and find trust in others.
If you want to increase your oxytocin, focus on expressing empathy towards others and being open with your communication. A simple way to do this is by simply giving someone your undivided attention (no phones, computers, TVs, kids, or barking dogs in sight). This also includes truly listening to them and not just waiting for your turn to speak. Another great oxytocin booster is taking a warm shower or bath. This will stimulate your oxytocin receptors naturally.