It’s often called the “cuddle hormone,” the “hug hormone” and the “love hormone.” Not only are these easier names to say than “oxytocin,” but they also describe what this chemical messenger produced by the brain’s pituitary gland does: Oxytocin makes social bonding feel good.
Oxytocin seems to play a role in our relationship with animals: A recent study conducted by Japanese researchers found both people and dogs experience an increase in oxytocin levels when they look in each other’s eyes for extended periods.
These properties have some researchers excited about the hormone’s potential for use in therapy. The American Psychological Association (APA) reports small-scale studies have shown sniffing the hormone can help autistic people interpret social cues better and lessen social anxiety in people with anxiety disorders. But some researchers caution against looking at oxytocin as a pure “love hormone.”
“It’s never a good idea to map a psychological profile onto a hormone; they don’t have psychological profiles,” said University of California, Los Angeles, psychologist Shelly Taylor, Ph.D, in the APA’s newsletter.
This caution seems to be warranted. A new study conducted last year at the University of California, Davis, showed oxytocin’s role is more complicated than the popular press has made it out to be.
Gender, environment and oxytocin
Researchers at the university’s Department of Psychology gave a nasal spray containing oxytocin to male and female mice. An aggressive mouse was allowed to bully the test mice, a situation that understandably lowers the typical mouse’s desire to associate with unfamiliar mice. But in male mice who received the oxytocin spray, researchers observed an increased willingness to interact with unfamiliar mice.
This was a result in line with previous studies. However, the results were different in female mice. The researchers found the oxytocin had no effect on female mice placed into the same stressful environment, and for female mice who weren’t under stress, the oxytocin spray actually reduced their social desire. Further analysis by the researchers found major differences in the relationship between stress and oxytocin. After stressful situations, brains in females produced more oxytocin, but the brains in males produced none.
The environment the mice were in also affected how male and female mice reacted to oxytocin. Mice tested in cages that were familiar to them showed reduced levels of stress after being given the oxytocin spray, suggesting oxytocin’s effects depend on the environment being familiar or unfamiliar.
“Most clinical studies investigating oxytocin as a treatment for depression or anxiety include only males,” said neurologist Brian Trainor, one of the study’s authors. “It’s important to include both men and women in these studies. The effect of oxytocin may be different if administered by an unfamiliar person or by a person with whom the patient has a personal relationship.”
Other studies have also shown oxytocin’s effects can vary dramatically. A 2010 study published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” showed outside factors play a role in oxytocin’s effects. In the study, men in stable relationships tended to remember closer childhood relationships with their mothers when given oxytocin. But men who were in unstable relationships remembered their childhood relationships as being less close and caring, even when given oxytocin.
There’s still much research to be done on oxytocin, and it’s far from being a magic cure-all for treating anxiety and depression. Sovereign Health of Arizona’s clinic in Chandler provides high-quality, effective mental health care for women. We specialize in treating trauma and abuse, and we also offer a dual diagnosis program which treats additional underlying disorders such as anxiety and depression. Please call our 24/7 helpline for more information.
About the author
Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for the Sovereign Health Group. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at email@example.com.
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