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Oxytocin's Role in Your Body & Brain: A Science-Backed Guide

Oxytocin's Role in Your Body & Brain: A Science-Backed Guide
Dr. Constance Odom, MD Picture of Dr. Constance Odom, MD

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Written by our editorial team.

Last Edited 6 min read

Often times, we arenât even aware of the processes that happen within our bodies. Cells divide and hormones are regulated every day. One hormone, called oxytocin, has a wide range of effects on the body, including physical and behavioral aspects.

The Basics

Before we talk about specifics, itâs necessary to understand what hormones are and the functions they are in charge of. Hormones are responsible for sending messages throughout the body, like a messenger service. They control aspects like reproduction, heart rate, sleep cycles, development and metabolism to name a few.

Oxytocin is a hormone regulated by the hypothalamus in the brain and released by the pituitary gland, the hormone warehouse of the endocrine system. It is commonly referred to as the love hormone or the cuddle hormone. This is because it is instrumental in both sexual activity and bonding between couples.à

It provides positive feelings for social and behavioral aspects while helping with reproductive functions. This is a complex hormone with a wide range of functions, with higher levels found in females compared to males. The pathological and physiological functions are discussed below for further information.à

The Physical Functions

One thing science tells us is that hormones are chemicals released and regulated by the body. Due to the many functions it has on the body, oxytocin has been notoriously difficult to study and pinpoint as responsible for particular properties in the body. However, recent studies have found that it plays a role in several functions, including those listed here:

  1. Childbirth. During labor, the body releases this hormone to increase contractions and assist the uterus in birthing the baby. Often, if a motherâs contractions are not strong or if she has trouble starting labor naturally, a synthetic form of this hormone is given, called Pitocin.
  2. Breastfeeding. When the nipples are stimulated, such as when a baby latches on, milk is released. Oxytocin is the hormone that signals the letdown of milk for the baby and also helps to prepare for feedings in the future.à
  3. Sexual stimulation. This hormone is found in both women and men, especially as related to sexual activity. In men, it aids in penile erection as well as ejaculation. And in women it is released with stimulation of the nipples.

These are the physical aspects of this hormone, which has a larger role in the female anatomy than in the male counterpart. Without proper levels of this in a womanâs body in regards to childbirth and maternal instincts, it could make it difficult on a woman to give birth and bond with her baby. A doctor can diagnose a low amount of oxytocin in a woman and prescribe the appropriate course of action.à

Social and Behavioral Factors

Science is positive about the link between this hormone and physical aspects, such as childbirth. The social and behavioral aspects are not as established and not as well studied, but there are observations that link this specific hormone to several psychological functions, including those below:

  1. Maternal behaviors. During labor, this hormone is released but afterward it is still present. This helps mothers bond with their children through a variety of ways, building trust and a sense of safety.à
  2. Reducing stress and anxiety. When it is released in the brain, oxytocin has been seen to help reduce levels of anxiety and stress. It is not yet used as a medical prescription for mental health, but studies may help begin the development of a prescription for this very reason.
  3. Helps with social deficits. Some researchers have suggested this hormone may be able to help those with social deficit disorders and children with autism to feel more comfortable in social settings while increasing levels of trust and openness among peers. à

While the physical factors of oxytocin are easily understood, the social and behavioral ones require more research. If, like some studies suggest, this hormone has the ability to help improve social and behavior aspects of humans, it could be a life-altering treatment for some individuals. Studies are ongoing to determine if hormone therapy could be used to treat mental health and behavioral issues, but the evidence so far suggests it may be possible.

Replacement Options for Hormone Deficiency

Hormones work to regulate the body, which is why a deficiency is not something to be ignored. With oxytocin, if your body does not produce enough it could lead to difficulty during childbirth and breastfeeding. Thankfully there are hormone replacement treatments to help produce what your body needs and keep you healthy.

Hormone Health Is Important

Hormones are important to our bodies and everyday functions, which is why it is so vital to be aware of our overall health. Some have more obvious functions than others and science is still determining how this particular one works in the human body. To learn more about oxytocin and options for hormonal replacement, contact us so we can discuss your options and help you stay healthy.


4 Sources

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This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your physician about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Nu Image Medical may not offer the medications or services mentioned in this article.