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Oxytocin

3-minute read

Oxytocin is a hormone that makes you feel love and trust. It is involved in childbirth and breastfeeding. It’s sometimes known as the ‘love hormone’.

What is oxytocin?

Oxytocin controls several processes in the body and also helps nerve cells in the brain to send messages to each other. It is produced in the part of the brain known as the hypothalamus.

The hormone is released in women during childbirth, when the nipples are stimulated during breastfeeding, and during sex.

When oxytocin is released into the body, the body responds so that more of the hormone is released. For example, during childbirth, the contractions of the womb cause oxytocin to be released into the blood. This causes more contractions, which in turn cause more oxytocin to be released.

What is the role of oxytocin?

Oxytocin helps the womb to contract during childbirth. Sometimes artificial oxytocin is given to induce (start) labour or to speed it up. It is also sometimes used to help the placenta to be delivered, or to help the womb contract after childbirth to prevent heavy bleeding.

When women are breastfeeding, oxytocin helps the milk to come down. In men, it has a role in making testosterone and helping sperm to move.

Oxytocin is also important for the brain to help people build relationships. It allows people to recognise each other, promotes trust and empathy, and helps mothers to bond with their baby. It also makes people feel sexually aroused.

What happens if I have too much or too little oxytocin?

It’s not clear what happens if there is too much or too little oxytocin in the body.

It is thought that too much oxytocin can lead to benign prostatic hypertrophy in men, a common condition in the prostate gland which makes it difficult to urinate.

Too little oxytocin might affect a woman’s ability to let down milk for breastfeeding. Low levels of oxytocin have also been linked to autism spectrum disorders and depression.

It has been suggested that boosting oxytocin levels may help to treat social phobia, depression and anger problems. However, it’s also been linked to envy, prejudice, and lying because it causes people to form ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’.

More research is needed to fully understand the role of oxytocin in the body.

How can I adjust my oxytocin levels?

Oxytocin can be used to provide therapy in several different situations. Women sometimes receive an oxytocin injection to start contractions or to strengthen them during labour. It can also be used to terminate a pregnancy or complete a miscarriage.

Children with autism are sometimes treated with oxytocin therapy to improve their social skills and help with repetitive behaviour. It can be prescribed by a doctor, psychiatrist or paediatrician, either as a nasal spray or as a lozenge under the tongue. Some research shows it can help, but more studies are needed to prove whether it works for everyone.

Oxytocin is also available online as a spray and it is claimed it can make people become attracted to you or trust you more. However, these claims aren’t proven and it is possible that using too much oxytocin can make people angry and aggressive.

Some studies show it is possible to raise oxytocin levels naturally by boosting good feelings – for example, by stroking a pet, meditating, hugging someone or doing something exhilarating like riding a roller coaster or skydiving.

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Last reviewed: March 2019

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