Oxytocin has been called ‘The Love Hormone’ and the ‘The Hormone of Happiness’. These somewhat sensational terms don’t even begin to describe all the functions of oxytocin in our bodies.
Oxytocin is a peptide hormone made of nine amino acids in a precise arrangement. It’s secreted by our posterior pituitary glands, and possibly elsewhere. It was first discovered in 1906 by Sir Henry Dale, and its name was derived from Greek, meaning ‘Swift Birth’.1
As the name suggests, oxytocin plays a well-known role in pregnancy-related uterine contractions and lactation. Among its many other now-known functions, oxytocin helps reduce anxiety and lessens the effects of stress. It contributes to pain perception in chronic pain syndromes, and helps improve human sociability, trust, and attachment. It may influence mood and ameliorate feelings of depression. Oxytocin is involved in sex and intimacy. It may even be useful in the treatment of autism.
Oxytocin reduces anxiety and lessens the effects of stress by lessening the secretion of ‘ACTH’, the pituitary hormone which stimulates (among other things) cortisol. With less cortisol, there’s less stress all over our bodies. One of the first clues to this action was the finding that nursing women had reduced plasma ACTH, cortisol and glucose responses (cortisol raises blood sugar levels) compared with women who delivered children but didn’t breast feed.
Relieve stress and remain calm with oxytocin
A later study demonstrated that an oxytocin nasal spray decreased the response to psychological stress. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, men given oxytocin and ‘social support’ prior to a stressful public speaking event had significantly reduced cortisol response and increased calmness.2
You may know that beta-blockers (adrenalin blockers) are sometimes used by symphony conductors and neurosurgeons before important concerts or operations when being calm (and not having trembling hands) is important; oxytocin may be able to help combat this type of stress, too.
Cardiac tissue is one of the lesser known locations for oxytocin action. In a rat study, internally secreted oxytocin moderated the heart’s response to stress. Male rats given additional oxytocin experienced reductions in blood pressure, but the effect was not observed in female rats.3
‘The Hormone of Happiness’ relieves autism symptoms
Autism is an area of intense oxytocin research. Children and adults with autism have been found to have decreased oxytocin levels compared with non-autistic children. Other research shows that supplemental oxytocin improves emotional recognition, and the ability to assign significance to emotional speech for children with autism.
Oxytocin given to autistic children also enhanced feelings of trust, promoted gazing time into the eyes and decreased other autism related symptoms. Oxytocin appears to be so safe (nursing infants are exposed to considerable extra oxytocin without harm) that parents of autistic children might consider asking a doctor skilled and knowledgeable in natural hormone use (remember, oxytocin is a hormone) about trying oxytocin for their child.
Ease pain and improve mood naturally
Oxytocin plays an intriguing role in pain perception. Oxytocin appears to reduce intestinal pain, which perhaps is not a surprise given its involvement in childbirth. Researchers studied oxytocin administration in patients with chronic constipation, and while oxytocin didn’t significantly reduce the constipation, there was a trend toward less accompanying abdominal pain. In study participants who also had depression, there was a trend toward an improvement in mood with oxytocin.4 Another study found that oxytocin administered via IV reduced intestinal pain in patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).5 Oxytocin receptor stimulation using ‘novel pharmacologic analogs’ (patent medicines) for the treatment of chronic abdominal pain is currently an active area of research,6 although some observe that oxytocin itself will stimulate oxytocin receptors, and that ‘novel pharmacologic analogs’ will likely have more adverse effects than oxytocin alone.
Another potential application for oxytocin is in the treatment of acute migraine. Published reports detail the use of intravenous oxytocin in both adult and paediatric cases.7 As of this writing, a phase II trial is evaluating a nasal oxytocin spray for migraine treatment.8
Could ‘The Love Hormone’ improve YOUR intimate relationships?
Dr. Jorge Flechas has been a pioneer in the clinical uses of oxytocin for the treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, as well as its uses for intimacy and sexual matters, and has given presentations concerning oxytocin use to doctors and other health care practitioners for years. Although controlled studies aren’t yet available, many practitioners have found that his observations about oxytocin improving intimate experience, attachment, affection, trust, and emotional connection are confirmed by a significant percentage of those couples who try it. In the book Passion, Sex and Long Life, Dr. Thierry Hertoghe details many remarkable clinical outcomes from Dr. Flechas’ practice.9
Male erectile tissues are one of the main peripheral ‘target areas’ for oxytocin. Although research is in relatively early stages, there are successful case reports concerning the use of oxytocin for erectile dysfunction (ED) and inability to reach orgasm (‘anorgasmia’ for the technically inclined).10, 11 In women, oxytocin levels are higher after orgasm compared to baseline levels.12 However, oxytocin appears to play a more complex role in the sexual experience in women compared to men.
Different people, different experiences
It seems a bit like a cliché, but even experimental evidence suggests that oxytocin supplementation may have different effects on different people. Although some of this is likely biological, research demonstrates that some may be psychological, based on a person’s background. People with a history of negative caregiving experiences in their childhood responded differently to oxytocin than people who did not have these negative experiences.
Examples of a ‘negative caregiving experience’ include parental divorce, harsh parental discipline with the use of physical force, or the lack of maternal love in childhood. Surprisingly, participants with these histories did not respond as strongly to the oxytocin administration as others who didn’t have these experiences. For instance, one study examined how the use of ‘parental love withdrawal’ as a form of discipline in the past influenced the effect of oxytocin on empathy. In this study, oxytocin significantly enhanced the adult participants’ willingness to donate money to a charitable cause, but only if their childhood was free of excessively harsh parental disciplinary measures.13
So far, there appears to be just one condition in which supplemental oxytocin should be avoided. Even though several animal studies suggest that oxytocin improves mood,14 recent research found that anorexic women’s internal oxytocin secretion after meals was actually higher, and associated with greater anxiety and depression. One possibility for this finding is that since eating is psychologically stressful for those suffering from anorexia, and since most are young, their pituitary glands are making extra oxytocin to calm down the stress15 But there’s no way to know for sure. Until ‘how, what and why’ is settled, extra oxytocin should probably be avoided by anorexics.
How to take oxytocin
Orally administered oxytocin, due to its multiple amino acid (peptide) structure, is rapidly broken down by peptide digestion in the intestine, and of course ceases to function as a hormone after it’s digested. When given by intravenous injection, oxytocin does not appear to cross the ‘blood-brain barrier’. Researchers favour intranasal oxytocin spray because of its absorption through the nasal mucosa. Although there are no published studies using oxytocin itself, a similar multi-peptide hormone, vasopressin, was shown to cross the blood brain barrier and enter the cerebrospinal fluid within 30 minutes after ‘sniffing’.16
There is little doubt clinically that oxytocin can also be effective when taken as a sublingual ‘troche’. However, many individuals and couples don’t notice any effect with sublingual administration; intranasal sprays might be tried in these instances before giving up, or perhaps tried first.
As noted above, we are all exposed to oxytocin while being born and while nursing from mother, as well as at other times in our lives, so it’s unlikely that it’s harmful in reasonable quantities. However, if you’re planning to use it for more than short term and/or at high doses, it’s wisest to work with a doctor skilled and knowledgeable in natural medicine and bio-identical hormones.
Two recent studies investigated for adverse effects in children and adolescents. Neither study found severe side effects of any kind, metabolic or otherwise. The first study tracked eight male participants for six months.17 The second study used an intranasal dose of up to 0.4 IU/kg/dose (27 IU in a 150 pound person) given twice a day.18
Testing for oxytocin
Oxytocin secretion can be highly situational, triggered by psychological factors, social situations, sexual factors, and likely other unknown factors as well, so the meaning of a single blood test is sometimes uncertain. Testing oxytocin in a 24-hour oxytocin collection (as is done for comprehensive bio-identical hormone testing) has several key advantages. Obviously, the 24-hour urine collection captures an entire day’s oxytocin secretion, and in addition can be done at home and is non-invasive. A 24-hour perspective also affords a more comprehensive oxytocin assessment compared to other methods that only measure an isolated snapshot in time.
Meridian Valley Laboratory (www.meridianvalleylab.com, of which I am indeed Medical Director) has recently introduced the 24-hour urine oxytocin determination, as a single test or as an add-on to bio-identical hormone testing done for oestrogens, progesterone, DHEA, testosterone, and other hormones. Although the test is new this year, I’ve already seen some remarkably low test results in a few individuals’ tests. So far, oxytocin has been significantly helpful in some – but not all – of those individuals. But it’s enough to suggest that oxytocin testing is a worthwhile add-on to the evaluation of natural hormones for many of us.
At present, oxytocin testing seems reasonable for children with autism, in those with chronic pain problems, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, for those who don’t appear to deal with stress well, for many individuals with depression, in individuals with social withdrawal and/or social avoidance, erectile dysfunction and other sexual dysfunction – or perhaps just for the possibility of enhancing sexual experience – in both genders.
As this was written, oxytocin was available online as a nasal spray, but the preservative used in these sprays are not ideal for the best of health. Much ‘cleaner’ sublingual forms and nasal sprays are available on prescription.
Wishing you the best of health,
Dr. Jonathan V. Wright
Nutrition & Healing
Vol. 8, Issue 8 – August 2014
Full references and citations for this article are available in the downloadable PDF version of the monthly Nutrition and Healing issue in which this article appears.