Know your Neurobiology: Oxytocin

Sensory Beginnings

Know your Neurobiology: Oxytocin

Oxytocin, a hormone known as the love hormone or cuddle chemical! As OTs we love that the acronym for Oxytocin is OT! 

Love is both the emotion and the biological process that creates the ‘calm and connection system’ designed to facilitate closeness, relationship, empathy and a sense of safety. And it plays a vital role in early life nurturing. 

Oxytocin (OT) is a hormone produced in the hypothalamus and released into the blood stream by the pituitary gland. Within the body it can enhance immune responses, impact autonomic nervous system responses and literally help to mend a broken heart.

1. Within the central nervous system oxytocin acts as a neurotransmitter where it has a direct impact on the amygdala, insula cortex and orbitofrontal cortex. Here it facilities emotion processing, empathy, social interaction and self-mentalising as well as reducing anxiety and supports bonding and secure attachments.

2. What is very impressive about oxytocin is that its production is controlled by apositive feedback mechanism, whereby its initial release stimulates even moreproduction and release of further oxytocin. So, the more love, connection andcalmness you experience, the more you will receive and the more you will generatein others you are in contact with! Its like a magic money tree, only better!

3. The oxytocin system is built primarily over the first year of life via the synthesis and release of oxytocin coupled with the activation of oxytocin receptor sites within the body and brain. Experiences, especially during this early life building phase, seem to influence the development of the oxytocin system which, when established goes onto modulate neuroendocrine, autonomic and behavioural responses to environmental challenges throughout life.

The sensory mechanisms that support this system’s development are provided through close, loving and attuned parental care. Tactile (in particular C-tactile fibre) activation arises through slow rhythmical touch, warmth, smell, auditory and visual interactions with parents all build this system.

Oxytocin and Connection

We are social animals, and we bond with those close to us for mutual survival. Our neurobiochemical system has evolved to support this essential bonding through tightly interlinking relationships. Relationships enable us to survive; babies cannot survive without adults around them. We take a long time to become fully mature, we need to learn much about the other humans around us and learn skills from them. We do all of this within the context of relationships which are supported by oxytocin and love. 

Oxytocin is produced during times of social bonding, talking, laughing together,sharing a cup of tea, making eye contact, intimate relationships, kissing, cuddling(including cuddling your dog!) sex, reproduction, birthing, breastfeeding andmother-infant bonding. 

Oxytocin is generally higher in women especially during direct child rearing. Mothers with higher levels are more likely to connect and be affectionate, check in, touch, feel, sing, groom and bathe their babies. In turn, the babies’ oxytocin is boosted and they too look for more connecting in. However, OT is present in us all. Possibly due to our significant capacity for bonding, OT can be synthesised even in those not giving birth, enabling a parenting brain to be forged in others around the baby. Fathers will have similar levels of OT as mothers when the baby is 6 months old; adoptive caregivers and anyone close to the baby have the capacity to increase levels of oxytocin. 

Closeness enables us to learn about each other more quickly, read body cues and become more in-tune and attuned to another’s needs. 

Oxytocin and Calm

Oxytocin is more readily released when we are in non-threatening situations. It is important to support parents and babies to feel safe to facilitate its production. OT can induce anti-stress-like effects such as reduction of blood pressure and cortisol levels. 

It increases pain thresholds, Oxytocin exerts anti-stress and anti-inflammatory effects, reduces blood pressure and cortisol levels. It does this by reducing activity of the amygdala and of the stress response system (the HPA-axis and sympathetic nervous system). By doing this it facilitates the parasympathetic nervous system to release its energies, supporting restoration, growth, maturation and prosocial behaviours. The idea is that early in life. if production of oxytocin and oxytocin receptor cells is maximised, then these provide a buffer to future stress responses, an enduring shift in the balance towards the oxytocinergic system of calm and connection, as opposed to the fight, flight and freeze stress reactions. 

So it seems that St Valentine and the Beatles were right – “All we need is Love”. Low levels of oxytocin have been linked to depression, increased stress response, reduced immune functioning, reduced growth and child and adult psychopathology. Supporting the production of oxytocin could change these outcomes. And it can be enhanced by feeling safe, by the simple act of touch, hugs and cuddles, listening to music and singing, especially in groups, and exercise has recently been found to help too. So, grab a partner and dance while you sing. And to quote Roxy Music, “Love is the Drug for me”!! 

References

[1]Scatliffe N, Casavant S, Vittner D, Cong X. Oxytocin and early parent-infant interactions: A systematic review. Int J Nurs Sci. 2019;6(4):445-453. Published 2019 Sep 12. doi:10.1016/j.ijnss.2019.09.009

[2]Jankowski M, Gonzalez-Reyes A, Noiseux N, Gutkowska J. Oxytocin in the heart regeneration. Recent Pat Cardiovasc Drug Discov. 2012 Aug;7(2):81-7. doi: 10.2174/157489012801227210. PMID: 22435448.

[3]Vittner, Dorothy & McGrath, Jacqueline & Robinson, JoAnn & Lawhon, Gretchen & Cusson, Regina & Eisenfeld, Leonard & Walsh, Stephen & Young, Erin & Cong, Xiaomei. (2017). Increase in Oxytocin FromSkin-to-Skin Contact Enhances Development of Parent-Infant Relationship. Biological research for nursing.20. 1099800417735633. 10.1177/1099800417735633.