What does sex, childbirth, and breastfeeding have in common? They are all activities regulated by Oxytocin, a neuropeptide produced by the hypothalamus and secreted by the pituitary gland. The love hormone is also known as the hug hormone, the cuddle chemical, and the moral molecule. So why all the fuss about this chemical?
Science has recently paid more attention to the amazing effects of Oxytocin and perhaps to how much our human characteristics are owed to it, since we now know it helps regulate our social behaviours and our emotions. Some researches will say that it is responsible for the propagation of our species, and through evolution it has taken on a more central role in complicated aspects of our reproductive behaviour. OK, but how? For one, it is thought to be the hormone responsible for the pleasure we feel when we have an orgasm. It can also be related to how the uterus moves helping sperm reach its destination.
The love hormone is released in large amounts during labour and after nipple stimulation, facilitating childbirth and breastfeeding. But it doesn’t stop there! Oxytocin is anxiolytic and plays a role not only in romantic attachments but in the empathy we feels towards others. Studies have found that couples in romantic relationships have larger amounts of Oxytocin than single people, and the high levels could last up to 6 months. This explains feelings of calm, trust, and happiness we may experience when we are in love.
Interestingly, Oxytocin is a shy hormone. It can be quickly overridden by its mirror image stress hormone- adrenaline. These two hormones share the same receptors, so it’s either one or the other taking control. We are either feeling very calm, loved, and trusting; or we are scared, fearful and in a “fight of flight’ mode. This is very important in childbirth, because in order for labour to progress a woman needs Oxytocin, however is she is frightened, not feeling safe or loved, the hormone will shy away, and Adrenaline will kick in, sometimes stopping labour all together. This makes sense evolutionary-wise since a woman in the wild would have been able to stop labour if a predator was around her.
Bearing in mind that Oxytocin is secreted in rhythmic pulsations, it is important to remember it operates in a positive feedback loop. The more it generates feelings of calm, love and pleasure, the more it is secreted. This information is key in respect to labour, for there are ways a woman can ensure she has an Oxytocin fuelled birth, such as hiring a doula and learning Hypnobirthing techniques.
One can also think of ways to improve their romance and sex life by considering how the hormone works. Oxytocin is shy, so perhaps dim lights, sweet melodies, a bubble bath, a relaxing massage, followed by lots of touching could reinforce the positive loop of hormonal interaction which will not only reach a climax but could guarantee the continuation of our species!