OXYTOCIN- THE CUDDLE, LOVE & BONDING HORMONE (PART I)
The subtle exquisite influences of nature never cease to amaze me. Do you know that the process of bonding in humans and in animals is orchestrated by a chemical in our bodies? Without this chemical drive we might not even perpetuate ourselves? Without this chemical tie in humans and animals there might be more abandonment of the helpless newborn. The presence of the hormone, Oxytocin (OT), in our brain and body is among the vast number of daily miracles taking place in each of us. The proper amount and functioning of OT determines our ultimate sense of personal and interpersonal contentment and connectedness. Inadequate OT influence can lead people and animals to become withdrawn, alienated and isolated.
Each of our hormones has a unique critical set of functions and OT serves to support the continuing existence of humanity. We have long known OT is intimately involved in sexual behavior, birth, breast feeding, and the social bonding which is needed for the care and preservation of the young. Oxytocin is released in large amounts to stimulate uterine contractions during labor to help expel the baby. Nipple stimulation of a lactating mother induces OT to cause milk letdown to allow breast feeding. The large amount of OT released during birth also travels to the infant to induce an inhibitory anesthetizing effect on its brain in preparation for the uncomfortable trip down the birth canal. Oxytocin helps the mother forget the pain of giving birth so she is ultimately willing to repeat the cycle and to have more children.
Though OT was first identified in the early 1900's, it was only viewed as being important to the above mentioned processes until the 1980's when it began to be studied for its further extraordinary and extensive functions.
WHAT ELSE HAVE WE DISCOVERED ABOUT OXYTOCIN?
Chemically speaking, oxytocin is a neuropeptide made from nine amino acids. It functions as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters are chemical substances allowing communication between brains cells to effect specific emotional, cognitive, motor, or automatic brain or body functions. Oxytocin is made in the hypothalamus and stored in and released by the posterior pituitary gland to create reactions in the body and brain. Oxytocin is also made in other yet to be mentioned locations in the body and brain.
Because of my special interest in hormones and neurotransmitters, I have wanted to dig deeper into the subject of oxytocin. I have found the study could go on for a lifetime. But for now this newsletter needs to get finished as it has become so long it will be divided into 2 parts. Even though the research is in its infancy there are several books about oxytocin. This newsletter cannot begin to cover all the information but will give you some idea of the importance of this critical hormone and for whom and why it can be a useful therapeutic agent.
Oxytocin mediates the patterns of maternal care to increase maternal supportive nurturing behavior. The large amount of OT release with the birthing process facilitates the start of the mother-child emotional chemical bonding process. Subsequently each time the mother and infant positively interact more OT is released by both of them. This intermittent pulsing release of OT helps the baby associate social contact with states of pleasure, well-being, and calmness which in turn plays a crucial role in early brain development. The repeated exposure to OT causes long lasting positive effects by building and influencing multiple neurotransmitter systems throughout the brain. Infant massage is popular in many cultures, especially India. This is obviously highly beneficial in triggering the OT reaction.
It isn't all about mothers either. Fathers need to be directly involved, as studies show the OT levels of fathers only increase with early direct skin contact with the baby. These researchers suggest we need to provide opportunities for paternal care to trigger the OT mediated biological basis of fatherhood. This explains my sisters' recent behavior when her son and his wife had their first child. My sister is an R.N. Lactation Specialist, so she would be involved in this sort of thing. She insisted her son stay home from work the first few days the baby was home to hold the diapered only baby while her son wore no shirt. This was to immerse them in what she called skin to skin contact essential for bonding and for maximum early brain development of the infant. You will learn from this newsletter that all of this does get the baby off to a better start in life which has lasting consequences. There is also research on the importance of this skin to skin contact.
A study showed that females with higher OT in the first trimester bonded better with their babies. Another study showed that those with high OT throughout pregnancy and in the first month post- partum exhibited more behaviors supporting their exclusive relationship with their baby. We can reasonably infer that a mother with difficulty emotionally relating to her baby, may be suffering from inadequate production of Oxytocin. In research, mothers who had higher levels of OT during mid-pregnancy were less apt to suffer post-partum depression (PPD) which is partially related to OT issues. But it's not that simple, and PPD is likely caused by imbalances in several hormones and neurotransmitters.
Infant and early childhood neglect or abuse can cause atrophy of the OT circuits. This can result in lasting social impairment with the individual having difficulty feeling love or trust and existing in a self-centered survival mode. However, we need to be very careful not to get in to the old attitude of blaming the mother for all the child's problems. Many things can go wrong genetically, biochemically and structurally which can predispose an infant/child toward malfunctioning OT circuits. I treated some of these child psychiatric inpatients during my time at the Neuropsychiatric Institute, UCLA. I worked with some children who reportedly had normal loving early parenting (at least by parent interview and evaluation). Yet these children had almost no capacity to care for others or to develop relationships. These were very young children who set their animals on fire, behaved with hostility and aggression
toward others and themselves, and basically behaved like wild animals. I have often wondered what became of each of them. Now I can assume part of their problem may have related to oxytocin malfunction.
Animals that receive more grooming from their mothers are able to manage social stress, and they have higher levels of OT in certain parts of the brain. In animal studies, if a mother neglects the baby the OT receptors atrophy. Monkeys raised without mothers have lower levels of OT than those reared normally. Children raised with severe early neglect may later have symptoms similar to autism. Also they have a lower subsequent OT response when given attention than do normal children.
Recent research has discovered OT is an intrinsic component and
determinant of a variety of cognitive, emotional, psychological, physiological, grooming, affiliative, sexual and reproductive behaviors and is secreted throughout life, not just at birth or in early development. It is a part of our everyday lives. Our OT neurochemical pathways which have developed from the interactive processes of our lives regulate ALL our social attachments, and our ability to create and maintain social ties. A positive environment and everyday positive social interaction continuously activates our OT system. The repeated exposure to this hormone produces long lasting beneficial effects which influence other hormone and neurotransmitter systems.
We can reasonably infer that Oxytocin has a function in whatever area it is found or wherever there are receptor cells. Researchers use this information as a guide to important areas of research re the actions and benefits of oxytocin. Most of these functions are not yet fully explored and understood. We do know that OT interacts with the opioid and dopamine systems in the brain. We do know that serotonin leads to an elevation of OT levels.
Just as with any hormone or neurotransmitter, we have varying amounts of OT in our bodies and varying responsivity from our oxytocin receptor sites. Each hormone and each neurotransmitter must have cells to link to in order to create their effects. These are receptor cells, existing specifically to receive that substance and make corresponding changes in the body.
We'll detail the body locations of OT and OT receptors because it is important towards understanding the wide range of effects and ultimate therapeutic possibilities.
There are oxytocin receptors in many parts of the brain and spinal cord such as the:
Amygdala is the area of the brain which detects threats, processes fear, is involved with defensive behavior and communicates this to the rest of the brain. It is also a brain area which is involved with phobias, social isolation, and sleep problems.
Ventromedial hypothalamus is the brain region associated with satiety and therefore highly implicated with eating issues and disorders. It is also important in female sexual behavior and "play" behavior.
Hippocampus: is the brain area which relates to memory and spatial orientation.
Septum: is an area considered a pleasure zone. It plays a role in reward and reinforcement and integrates fibers from many different brain areas. The more OT receptors located in brain regions associated with reward, the more fulfilling are social interactions!
Nucleus accumbens: is a collection of brain cells playing an important role in reward, pleasure, laughter, addiction, aggression, fear and the placebo effect.
Pineal gland: is an area which produces melatonin which modulates sleep/wake cycles and seasonal functions and some immune functions.
Brain stem: is an area which regulates cardiac and respiratory function, regulates the central nervous system, maintains consciousness and regulates the sleep cycle. All nerve connections from the brain to the body pass through this area, so essentially this area is involved in all motor and sensory systems.
Outside the brain oxytocin containing cells or receptors are found in the adrenal medulla, pancreas, kidneys, fat cells, thymus, retina, heart, uterus, spinal cord, vascular beds, ovaries, testicles, prostate, and the placenta.
BESIDES BIRTH, WHAT ELSE TRIGGERS THE RELEASEOF OXYTOCIN?
Oxytocin is involved in penile erection and ejaculation and is released with orgasm in the male and female. Some have felt the chemical high following fulfilling sex can be similar to taking opiates with the increase in OT, serotonin, vasopressin and other endogenous opioids. Stimulation of the nipples, vagina and cervix during sex cause oxytocin release.
Oxytocin is released when there are feelings of closeness and bonding such as in families, friendships, or romantic interests. It is released with cuddling, positive touching and nourishing caring supportive behaviors and environments. Even "acting loving" can produce more OT which then makes us feel more loving.
Oxytocin is released following positive shared social interactions and we can hope positive psychotherapy supports OT release. Activities such as soft touching, massage, pleasant reading and music, positive stimulation of the senses, warm climate, eating a good meal, soldiers marching together, a sports team warming up before a match, people praying together in church, ritual dancing of primitive tribes, etc. cause the release of oxytocin. This produces a bonding, a feeling of closeness and a willingness to help others. "Oxytocin makes us feel what others feel which not only motivates us to avoid doing things to hurt others, but actually makes us feel pleasure when we bring others joy."
The amount of OT we release is associated with our ability to maintain healthy relationships and healthy psychological boundaries. In a study, those women whose OT levels rose in response to massage and remembering positive relationships reported having little difficulty setting appropriate boundaries, being alone, or trying too hard to please others. Women whose OT levels fell in response to remembering a negative emotional relationship reported greater problems experiencing anxiety in close relationships. The researchers concluded, "It seems that having this hormone 'available' during positive experiences and not being depleted of it during negative experiences is associated with well being in relationships." In response to positive emotions, women currently in close committed relationships had greater OT release than did singles.
WHAT DEPLETES OXYTOCIN?
Oxytocin is decreased by any negative stress, chronic excess stress, excess corticol, excess water, social isolation, detachment, bad social experiences, fear, anger, and drug and alcohol abuse.
Certain nutrient deficiencies can lead to OT depletion. The release of OT is promoted by having adequate amounts of the precursor nutrients needed for its formation in the body. Oxytocin is formed from a sequence of the nutrient precursor amino acids, cysteine
-amine. So we could assume amino acid deficiencies could lead to an oxytocin deficiency. Since the pyridoxal-5-phosphate (PSP)
form of vitamin B6 is also essential for any amino acid functioning in the body, we could assume a P5P deficiency would lead to less OT formation. The oxytocin receptors require the presence of adequate amounts of magnesium
and cholesterol to function properly, so a deficiency of either of these could cause a malfunction. Oxytocin is produced by a series of enzyme reactions one of which requires Vitamin C
as a necessary co-factor so we can assume a vitamin C deficiency could deplete oxytocin. It has also been found that Vitamin C can directly stimulate OT production.
WHAT ARE OTHER ACTIONS OF OXYTOCIN?
The deficiency of OT is likely associated with a variety of maladaptive behaviors and states of being. It is also connected with certain health conditions. The study of OT may shed light on why and how positive social relationships have consistently been associated with better health.
Part 2 of this newsletter will present some of the research and implications for using OT to treat anxiety, autism, PTSD, and certain other social and medical disorders.