Saturday, February 14, 2015

Discovery Central - Valentine's Day Special - Oxytocin, The Love Hormone

If I ask you a definition of love, what would you say? Well, this is an unanswerable question without a doubt. We can give plenty of descriptions about this, and one I personally like is the quote/struck phrase:

Love is like a butterfly, the more you chase it, the more it will elude you. But if you turn your attention towards other things it will come and softly sit on your shoulder. And be careful when you get it: hold it too much and you’ll squeeze it, don’t hold it enough and it’ll fly away.

Pretty mawkish, isn't it? We can say that love is just a way to complicate our lives. But we can also talk about love like a philosopher would do, just like the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who said this about love:

Love is a social code in which two people exchange expectations for the future. In a relationship you need to show your unique and irreplaceable self to the other. And If the other loves you, he recognize this self in your eyes.

Just like a mirror. And the meaning of your life is the life of your loved one. If she lost a tooth, you only see her smile. If he’s bald, you only see his eyes. But what’s the real problem? Love is extremely fragile and just a little crack is enough to let it end. In fact Niklas Luhmann also said:

Love inevitably ends, quicker that beauty , therefore faster than nature. And the end is conditioned by itself . Love lasts only for a short time and its end compensates for the lack of any other limit . The very essence of love, excess, is the foundation of its end.

If you have ever fallen in love you know what this is. Clearly, if a relationship lasts for many years without novelty, love is replaced with boredom. On the other hand, when a love story is not going very well, disappointment will inevitably come. Briefly, Love inevitably ends, always (today I’m giving a hopeful message). But this is just the psychological aspect. And Discovery Central is all about biological functions.

In our brain there’s a portion, called hypothalamus, which controls everything, without having any fun. However, the hypothalamus has more control over sexual desires than feelings. And this is why love and sex are not the same thing, otherwise all the porn sites would be full of people in love.
Talking about feeling the real main molecule is an hormone called Oxytocin. This is just like a powerful love potion with amazing functions. This is increasingly being seen as a brain chemical that does a lot more than just bring couples closer together. New research suggested that oxytocin plays a crucial part in let us forge and strengthen our social relations, but also in helping us to avoid or solve a number of psychological and physiological problems as well. And these are just few of the love-friendly function it has. And believe it or not, today you will discover this molecule has a dark side. But let’s start from the beginning.

First of all, it's extremely easy to get. One of the great things about oxytocin is that your body can release it anywhere and at any time. All you need to do is simply hug someone or shake their hands. The simple contact will cause your brain to release low levels of oxytocin. It's a near-instantaneous way to establish trust.  And the good news is that the effect has a very light limit. There's even evidence that simply gazing at someone will do the trick — or even just thinking about someone. Of course this is valuable for humans and for animals, so hugging your pet is a fantastic idea.

Often referred to as the "love molecule", oxytocin is typically associated with helping couples establish a bigger sense of intimacy and attachment. Oxytocin, along with dopamine and norepinephrine, are believed to be highly critical in human pair-bonding. It also increases the desire for couples to gaze at one another, it creates sexual arousal, and it helps males maintain their erections. When you're sexually aroused or excited, oxytocin levels increase in your brain significantly. And during the orgasm itself, the brain is flooded with oxytocin. And it can be called a love potion that's built right inside us, and maybe this molecule is a logic explanation for why some couples like to cuddle after making love.

Oxytocin also helps you to be a good mother. So it isn’t limited to couples. Oxytocin is an indispensable part of childbirth and mother-child mutual feelings. It helps women get through labor by stimulating uterine contractions, which is why it's sometimes administered during labor. It's been known to promote delivery and speed up contractions. After birth, mothers can establish intimacy and trust with their baby through gentle touches and even a loving gaze. In addition, mothers can pass on oxytocin to their babies through breast milk. And it's interesting to notice that even fathers can benefits from oxytocin as well; new dads who are given a whiff of oxytocin nasal spray are more likely to encourage their children to explore during playtime and are less likely to be rough.

Oxytocin reduces social fears. Given its ability to break-down social barriers, induce feelings of optimism, increase self-esteem, and build trust, oxytocin can help people overcome their social inhibitions and fears. Studies are showing that it may be effective against debilitating shyness, or to help people with social anxieties and mood disorders. It can be also helpful for people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

Stress and Pain Relief.  Amazingly, a rise in oxytocin levels can relieve pain — everything from headaches, cramps and overall body aches. Now, that being said, the trick is to get some oxytocin action while you're in pain — which is not so easy. This is where synthetics can certainly help. Alternately, if you find yourself in physical discomfort, you could always ask your friends for a hug. And not surprisingly, given its ability to alleviate social anxiety and produce feelings of trust, oxytocin has the ability to reduce stress — which is no small thing when you consider  all the problems we have in our life everyday. Oxytocin has been observed to reduce cortisol in the body and lower blood pressure. It's also been known to improve digestion, which is often disturbed by high stress levels. Interestingly, oxytocin and the oxytocin receptors have been found in the intestinal tract; it improves gut motility and decreases intestinal inflammation. We can suppose it makes you wanna have a great meal.

The disease of the new century. Of course we are talking about Depression and, believe it or not, Oxytocin can also be involved in this. In fact, this molecule was first observed to have a connection to depression through its effects on mothers suffering from postpartum syndrome. Researchers found that low levels of oxytocin were increasing their depression. And then they were able to predict some cases of postpartum depression before the birth of the child. Recent studies of blood levels and genetic factors in depressed patients have revealed that oxytocin has a fantastic potential against clinical depression and anxiety disorders.

The next function can be seen both as a good or a bad thing. In fact, oxytocin has been observed to increase generosity in humans. Evolutionary biologists, particularly those who subscribe to the selfish gene theory, have long struggled to understand why people sometimes decided to be generous. But several lines of research have connected oxytocin and empathy. In a study in which people had to share money with a stranger, injections of oxytocin made some subjects 80% more generous than those without it.

And if all of this was not enough, oxytocin can surprisingly be used to prevent obesity in some instances. Researchers have observed that mice with normal food intake, but with a little amount of oxytocin and oxytocin receptors, become obese later in life. Scientists believe that it might be responsible for a series of beneficial metabolic effects, both in mice and humans. Moreover, by giving obese mice oxytocin injections, their weight returned back to normal levels. The mice also showed a reduced glucose intolerance and insulin resistance. This can be a quite good way to maintain the right weight without particular issues.

Mixing all the functions above, we can correct the definition of “Love Hormone” with “Soul Hormone”. In fact, all of the good emotions we have are connected with this molecule. So it’s clear that we really wouldn't be human without it. But I’m afraid this is not so perfect. Scientists believe Oxytocin may have a Dark Side. And some experiments ensure this theory.

Researchers have discovered it also can promote ethnocentrism, xenophobia, prejudice and violence.

In five experiments 280 male Dutch volunteers first inhaled a spray containing either oxytocin or a placebo (a chemical with no particular functions). In the first two experiments participants hit one button if they saw a positive word such as "wonderful" or the name of a fellow Dutchman on the computer, such as Maarten; they pushed another key if they saw a negative word such as "awful" or a foreign name. These groupings were then reversed—the volunteers pushed one button if they saw a positive word or a foreign name, and the other if they saw a negative word or a Dutch name. Arab names such as Ahmed were used in the first experiment and German ones such as Helmut in the second. The researchers found that in both cases, volunteers given oxytocin were faster at linking fellow Dutchmen with positive words. There was also significant evidence that foreign names were more often linked with negative words.

In a third experiment the scientists investigated the extent to which volunteers ascribed only "noble" human emotions such as admiration or contempt to fellow countrymen or foreigners as opposed to more basic ones such as exhaustion and pleasure. Participants given oxytocin were significantly more likely to associate more noble human emotions with Netherlanders than with foreigners, although they were equally likely to associate positive and negative emotions to either group.

In the last experiments volunteers were given the option to save the lives of five nameless people by sacrificing one other person. These lone individuals either had typical Dutch male names, or foreign ones—Arab names in the fourth experiment and German ones in the fifth. Participants given oxytocin sacrificed foreigners more often than fellow Dutchmen. This isn't because they mercilessly sacrificed more outsiders than volunteers given placebo did—rather, they protectively sacrificed fewer fellow Dutchmen.

The result is that oxytocin makes people prefer their own group over other groups, setting the stage for prejudice and social discrimination. Scientists decided that oxytocin should not be used for recreational purposes. And while oxytocin may help in therapeutic settings, much more controlled research is needed, because there is a lot we do not yet know about oxytocin.

And unfortunately, the love effects of the oxytocin lasts only for three years, and this is the highest amount of time. So, biologically, love doesn't last forever. It can be released again, but not for the same person. And then if she lost a tooth, you only see the hole. If he’s bald, you only see the reflection. So, at the end, we can describe love like this:
Love is a social code in which a person finds the meaning of the life in the life of the loved one. This since there is Oxytocin. 
I’m sure everybody will understand…..WELL, UNTIL THEY FALL IN LOVE.


  1. Isn't it amazing how a simple 4-letter word that is commonly used could be this hard and complicated to explain? Love is a many splendid things. Love is simple, but people complicate it. Our brains is just magical!

    Happy Vday, dear!

    1. Love and Feelings are extremely complicated. This is just a little bit of how it works. And it's true our brain has something magical.
      Happy Vday to you :)

  2. I must confess that I was reluctant to read this post because of the title... But then I found it very interesting! I liked the scientific point of view you adopted and I discovered many things I didn't know before.
    And, in the end, I also discovered that you're almost as pessimistic as I am towards love... Maybe we need some optimism, my dear! Or oxitocin ;)

    1. Absolutely dear.... Maybe some oxytocin injections wouldn't be so bad :) Let you discover new things is such a joy to me


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