The oxytocin hormone is a chemical produced by most mammals in greater or smaller amounts. Women typically produce it in much larger amounts, but it is also produced by men, particularly men engaged in amorous activities like kissing or intercourse. The hormone acts as a neurotransmitter, reducing the stress hormone cortisol and facilitating bonding. It may be called the “cuddle hormone” in this respect, because it tends to encourage greater cuddling between pairs since it can make the brain perceive this in a “feel good” way, while stress levels decline.
There are a number of ways oxytocin serves the female body. It stimulates lactation, making it possible for moms to breastfeed their children. It also is released throughout labor, and women having difficulty going into labor may have labor induced by the synthetic form of the oxytocin hormone, called pitocin.
It’s often wondered why any woman would endure a labor a second time, and here there may be a specific reason, due to this hormone. Even though most women will remember their labors quite well, the details may be fuzzed and perception of pain encountered can be less than was actually experienced. Though not every woman has a fantastic labor experience, and some women suffer from trauma, many women feel joyful or energetic after labor, which can be in part due to the significant reduction of cortisol at the same time oxytocin levels are increased. Interestingly, using pitocin may change labor perception because it is released differently into the body than is oxytocin.
Numerous studies on oxytocin suggest it may indicate the degree to which animals will form long-lasting bonds. One such study, conducted by C. Sue Carter between prairie and montane voles showed that prairie voles, which are much likely to stay together as couples for longer, had higher levels of oxytocin than did montane voles. Montane voles are more known for their mate and move on behavior, and are unlikely to participate in raising baby voles together.
In humans, it is thought that this hormone helps form the bond between mothers and babies, especially if mothers breastfeed. It may be important to infants too. Some doctors feel that infants who suffer extreme neglect might be treated with the hormone in order to reduce some of the negative stressors neglect causes. There are also questions about whether oxytocin hormone could be used to treat conditions of mental illness or possibly of autism.
Bonds between couples may be strengthened by production of oxytocin, and here there is some interesting evidence. It has long been thought that casual sexual encounters are most likely to affect women in a negative fashion, because when bonds break suddenly, a woman may not be as likely to recover as quickly, though this varies. Part of the reason this has always been argued is due to women’s larger amount of oxytocin. However men may actually produce greater amounts than do women during cuddling, kissing or intercourse, suggesting neither women nor men are exactly immune to the bonding feelings that can occur during even the most casual sex.
Indication also exists that oxytocin hormone may be a way to help end addiction. It might help make recovering from alcoholism easier, and it is not considered an addictive substance. The synthetic versions may be difficult to take, and can’t be taken orally though. They are either administered by injection or by nasal spray. As soon as this hormone hits the stomach, it is digested and won’t reach the bloodstream.