Oxytocin: This is how the cuddle hormone works

Oxytocin This is how the cuddle hormone works

Oxytocin is also known as the bonding, lust or cuddle hormone. In both women and men, the hormone is of outstanding importance in interpersonal relationships, even in  babies  it is already formed. It occurs naturally in the body and is used as a medicine. What triggers oxytocin, what is the effect of the hormone in men and women and when is it used medicinally?

What is oxytocin?

By definition, oxytocin is a hormone that performs a variety of important functions in the male and female body. Oxytocin is synthesized in the brain, more precisely in the hypothalamus. It is then stored in the back of the  pituitary gland , the pituitary gland, and released when needed.

Like endorphins, oxytocin is one of the happiness hormones and is also colloquially referred to as the cuddle or loyalty hormone. However, states such as “love” do not correspond to a uniform physical-hormonal state, but are actually highly individual.

 Oxytocin has nothing to do with  oxycodone . Oxytocin is a peptide hormone, while oxycodone is an opioid used for severe and very severe pain and harbors great potential for addiction.

What does oxytocin do in the body?

The hormone generally promotes interpersonal behavior and therefore plays a role in people’s bonding behavior – hence the name cuddle hormone. It is also present in the body during the birth process and promotes the contraction of the uterus.

The term also comes from this context, the name oxytocin has its origins in the Greek word okytokos. This means as much as “easily giving birth”. The hormone oxytocin is not only relevant in humans – it has been detected in all mammals.

How is oxytocin triggered and what effects does it have?

The effect of oxytocin essentially consists of two aspects:

  1. Contraction of the muscles of the internal organs, i.e. the muscles that cannot be exerted intentionally (smooth muscle in technical terms)
  2. On a psychological level, the release of the hormone primarily leads to a promotion of bonding behavior via receptors in the brain.

physical effects

The following physical effects result from the muscular effect:

  • Inducing labor in the birth process:  Oxytocin is essential for normal labor.
  • Encouragement of milk production by the mammary gland:  Oxytocin stimulates the contraction (contraction) of the mammary gland and thus supports milk production after childbirth. However, milk production itself is not promoted, this is done by the hormone prolactin and is   inhibited by dopamine .
  • Improving wound healing:  Here, too, the smooth musculature is required, which pulls the edges of the wound together and thus brings them closer together.

Psychic Effects

The second mechanism, which takes place in the brain, results in the following psychological effects on people:

  • Strengthening of the emotional bond between mother and child:  An increased oxytocin level already exists during  pregnancy . Even babies already produce oxytocin, for example after sucking.
  • Connectedness in couple relationships:  This is also based on the effect that takes place in the brain. Oxytocin not only works with consensual cuddling, but is also triggered during sex in both men and women. Here it is initially used to increase pleasure, but the maximum dose is released during the orgasm itself.
  • Affection in social interactions:  This is also the same mechanism as in other interpersonal relationships. Oxytocin is released not only with close physical contact, but also with friendly conversations and constructive words – this is, however, lower than with closer contact.
  • Reducing Pain and  Stress Oxytocin can help relieve pain and reduce stress in the body.

Effect of oxytocin in women and men

As already indicated, the hormone occurs in both women and men. However, there are minor differences here.

What does oxytocin do in women?

In addition to the effects of the hormone mentioned above on the muscles of the uterus, the mammary gland and the mother-child bond, oxytocin is also released during orgasm.

What does oxytocin do in men?

As already described, the release of oxytocin also leads to increased bonding behavior in men. It is also suspected that it   plays a role in ejaculation and the associated expulsion of sperm by contracting the (smooth) muscles in the seminiferous tubules and the prostate .

Oxytocin deficiency

A lack of oxytocin during pregnancy can lead to postpartum  depression . It has been proven that a low hormone level in the last trimester of pregnancy in particular is associated with these serious consequences. Oxytocin deficiency is also discussed as a possible cause for other forms of depression.

increase oxytocin

In order to prevent the consequences of an oxytocin deficiency, the hormone has so far only been administered as a drug in studies. It could be shown, for example, that the low hormone levels could be compensated and thus the later symptoms of depression could be alleviated. However, emotions with negative connotations such as aggression, envy and gloating are also associated with oxytocin.

Oxytocin as a drug

As of today, oxytocin is only approved as a drug in obstetrics during childbirth. If the due date is far exceeded during pregnancy, the drug administration of oxytocin can trigger contractions.

In addition, oxytocin is used as a medication when bleeding occurs after birth due to lax uterine muscles (atonic bleeding). After a  caesarean section  , the oxytocin is used to detach the placenta. It is also used in the labor stress test.

The possible applications in the fields of psychiatry and neurology are currently still the subject of research. These include studies on the effect on people with  Alzheimer’s , people with autism or depression. 

Application of oxytocin

Oxytocin is most commonly administered intravenously, but it can also be used as a nasal spray. 

The dosage for infusions is given in “International Units” (IU). The dosages of the infusion solutions are available in three different strengths: 3 IU, 5 IU and 10 IU. Since it is a so-called peptide hormone (it consists of proteins), oxytocin cannot be administered in tablet form, otherwise it would be   rendered ineffective in the digestive tract would.

 It is therefore very unlikely that significant amounts of oxytocin are ingested unintentionally, for example through food through oxytocin in  food . An effect can only be assumed as an infusion into the blood-circulatory system, as a spray on the  nasal mucosa , or in the form of drops on the mucous membranes.

For women who are breastfeeding, oxytocin can be used as a nasal spray to help milk flow, making sucking easier. 

However, since the drug was withdrawn from the market in Germany in 2008 due to the uncertain study situation, there are no official recommendations regarding use and dosage. If the attending physician considers an application to be useful, these instructions should be clarified individually. Outside of the official areas of application (off-label), oxytocin can sometimes be obtained from pharmacies on medical prescription. The product is then imported from abroad.

Side effects of oxytocin

Oxytocin is similar in structure to the so-called antidiuretic hormone (ADH or vasopressin), which regulates the water balance in the body. Therefore, in high doses, oxytocin causes  water retention  (less fluid is excreted in the kidneys) and vasoconstriction. In this respect, it has effects comparable to those of  adrenaline . It puts the body in a state similar to what it would be like during a period of thirst. However, at lower doses, the opposite effect was demonstrated, meaning more urine was produced and more  sodium  was excreted.

Another possible side effect is  tiredness ,  because the high doses of oxytocin released during orgasm lead to exhaustion in the relaxation phase afterwards.

Some studies also show side effects such as  aggression, envy or malicious joy.  These emotions are said to be primarily due to the aspect of oxytocin, which promotes cohesion and, in this context, is also said to cause increased aggressive behavior towards outsiders to the advantage of the ingroup. However, the study situation is not clear here.

When should oxytocin not be used?

If you are pregnant (with the exception of induction of labor under medical supervision) or if you are taking prostaglandins at the same time, no oxytocin should be administered. Prostaglandins are mainly used in obstetrics. They promote the opening of the cervix. Prostaglandins make the uterus very sensitive to the contracting effects of oxytocin. Caution should also be exercised in combination with high blood pressure medication.

Can you buy oxytocin?

Hormone preparations containing oxytocin are not freely available in Germany. Only the nasal spray Syntocinon® used to be sold in German pharmacies, but was then withdrawn from the market. This was mainly due to the uncertain study situation regarding the efficacy and safety of the drug.

Oxytocin as a drug?

Due to the relatively easy release of oxytocin through various types of physical contact, for example  massage , it is sometimes referred to as an endogenous drug, similar to endorphins.

It should be noted, however, that no dependency potential of oxytocin has been proven and the rather low doses released here are harmless, even during pregnancy. However, the term is correct insofar as a hormone such as oxytocin can also have a euphoric effect. 

There are also drugs, such as MDMA, which increase oxytocin levels.


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