The Hormone of Love and So Much More
Oxytocin is most often associated with cuddling, massage, and orgasm during sex, leading to its nickname: the “love hormone.” Its primary medical use is to initiate uterine contractions during childbirth and to stimulate the flow of breast milk. Until recently, this hormone was so widely accepted as a drug used only in the field of obstetrics that little curiosity was shown for understanding this complex hormone.
Oxytocin was first described in 1906 by Sir Henry Dale, who named it from the Greek words for “quick” and “childbirth labor.” It is a hormone comprised of nine amino acids known as a peptide. During pregnancy, oxytocin from the brain of the fetus initiates uterine contractions to begin labor. The number of oxytocin receptors in the uterus increases during the course of labor and delivery and then decreases after delivery. It may also be used in much smaller doses to stop postpartum bleeding.
Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus gland, which is located in the brain near the pituitary gland. It is also produced independently in many parts of the body, including the retinas in the eyes, pineal gland, thymus, pancreas, testicles, ovaries, and adrenal glands. With a rhythm that peaks around noon, oxytocin has direct and unique modulating effects on its own production. Oxytocin is delivered from the hypothalamus to the pituitary gland, where it enters the bloodstream and is delivered to target areas with oxytocin receptors.
How Does It Work?
In the past, oxytocin was confined to the field of obstetrics. When it was discovered men also produce it, however, it became apparent that this hormone has more functions in the body than those related to childbirth. There appear to be several different kinds of receptors for this hormone, and scientists are still working on the details of this discovery.
Unlike most hormones, which signal the pituitary to control the release of other hormones, oxytocin production is affected by a number of different factors, not all of which are fully understood. Oxytocin directly stimulates nerve cells, which can have an immediate effect on our nervous system. It also acts upon the amygdala, potentially relieving the sometimes paralyzing sense of fear facilitated by that part of the brain. Memory storage can be amplified by accompanying emotions, and oxytocin may enhance the establishment of memory as well.
If there is a unifying theory to the action of oxytocin, Dr. Jorge Flechas believes it to be microcirculation–the circulation of blood in the smallest blood vessels in the body. Dr. Flechas illustrates microcirculation with this example: When two people hug each other, the front of their bodies experience a surge in oxytocin activity and become warmer than other parts of their bodies due to selective microcirculation.
A lack of adequate circulation can impair the delivery of oxygen to organs and tissues through the tiniest of blood vessels. One clue to problems with microcirculation may be pale, cold, and clammy skin. Oxytocin is thought to facilitate the production of nitric oxide, a gas the body can produce and quickly use to relax blood vessels.
A Special Relationship with Estrogen and Progesterone
Estrogen stimulates the production of oxytocin. According to The Oxytocin Factor by Dr. Kerstin Uvnäs-Moberg, although men and women seem to have similar receptors and target areas for oxytocin, estrogen stimulation results in more oxytocin being available to women. Dr. Flechas cautions against the use of estrogen-depleting drugs in men, as the side effects of this therapy may include the consequent depletion of oxytocin. In women, the decline of oxytocin following the decline in estrogen may contribute to some of the symptoms associated with menopause.
Oxytocin may also play a role in the regulation of progesterone. The signals the ovary receives to produce progesterone in the last half of the menstrual cycle may be delivered by oxytocin. Underlying symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) could be linked to the failure of this signal and the subsequent loss of progesterone production, such as:
- Tension or anxiety
- Mood swings
- Difficulty sleeping
- Breast tenderness
Some of the Many Functions of Oxytocin
- Initiating the uterine contractions of labor for childbirth
- Stimulating the flow of breast milk
- Stopping postpartum bleeding
- Stimulating nerve cells to possibly relieve mood disorders such as anxiety
- Potentially enhancing the establishment of memory
- Helping alleviate chronic pain and calming inflammation
Dr. Flechas began to realize a relationship between oxytocin and pain when he asked his patients what helped their chronic pain. One patient responded, “A warm bath,” another that massage helped, a third had hours of relief after an orgasm, and another continued breastfeeding her child for years because of the pain relief it afforded her. As it was already accepted that orgasm and breastfeeding increase these levels, Dr. Flechas speculated oxytocin was involved in relieving pain. Since then, people suffering from the pain of fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue have been seen to have low levels, and supplementing with oxytocin has been helpful for a number of them.
The medical community’s reliance on prescribing opioid drugs (i.e. narcotics) to treat pain has been accompanied by a number of pharmacological and social ills, such as debilitating side effects and risk of addiction and abuse. Drugs like naloxone, which have been developed to reverse the effects of opioids in the body, block the opioid receptors. When these drugs are used, however, the action of oxytocin is blocked as well.
There are many other pain treatments being investigated as alternatives to opioids, and oxytocin is emerging as one of these options. Studies have shown that people who suffer chronic pain have been seen to have lower oxytocin levels than those who do not, whereas the pain threshold is higher in individuals with adequate levels. There are also studies that demonstrate that oxytocin helps to relieve pain directly at the opioid receptors themselves.
Symptoms of autistic spectrum disorder include the inability to socially bond, allow hugs, physically touch, or even make eye contact. Children and adults with autism have been seen to have low oxytocin levels, a lack of functional oxytocin receptors, or problems with the enzyme conversions needed to activate oxytocin. Individuals with autism may have unremitting inflammation, identified by monitoring inflammatory markers in the blood. Oxytocin seems to have a role in calming this inflammation.
Due to the rapid effect of oxytocin on nerve cells in the brain, and the vast number of oxytocin receptors there, many mental disorders may have a component of oxytocin deficiency. Learning and memory may be enhanced by adequate oxytocin levels. Oxytocin may relieve difficulties in social situations, and high anxiety might be alleviated by its calming effect.
In Oxytocin: The Hormone of Healing and Hope, Dr. Kenneth Stoller writes about his personal struggle with grief after the death of his son. He was so consumed by the loss that he was unable to work or to function normally. Using oxytocin brought him relief and allowed him to participate in life again.
High Blood Pressure and Heart Disease
As mentioned before, oxytocin relaxes blood vessels by stimulating nitric oxide. Dr. Flechas asserts that atherosclerosis (the hardening and narrowing of the arteries) is preventable by adequate nitric oxide production in the blood vessels. If oxytocin declines or estrogen levels are lowered, there may be a direct effect on the development of clogged arteries. With this in mind, it might be appropriate to rule out oxytocin deficiency before resorting to traditional drug therapies for these conditions.
Not only is oxytocin released upon orgasm, but levels also begin to rise as sexual activity begins. These increases promote bonding between sexual partners. Oxytocin has been used clinically in men for both erectile dysfunction and orgasm and women for inability to achieve orgasm.
In his office, Dr. Flechas administers an injected dose of oxytocin to his patients to test its effectiveness as a treatment for each patient. Within a few minutes, the patient should become warmer, blush, and their ears should redden. If this does not happen, then the nitric oxide production has not occurred as predicted.
To test another pathway, Dr. Flechas will then use nitroglycerin, which can also produce nitric oxide. Nitroglycerin can work independently and cooperatively with oxytocin. If no results are achieved with the nitroglycerin or oxytocin, Dr. Flechas prescribes the use of nutrients to aid the nitric oxide production pathways. These nutrients include magnesium, a form of sulfur, inositol, malic acid, and arginine.
Deficiencies in other hormones, particularly adrenal hormones, may negatively impact the effectiveness of oxytocin. Hormones such as active thyroid (T3) and DHEA may need to be used to address these imbalances. After a restoration period, the patient is given another dose of oxytocin to determine whether the body is able to use it and whether it can now be effective.
In addition to the test procedure described above, oxytocin levels may be evaluated by lab tests. Commercial labs offer testing of oxytocin levels in the blood, or from a 24-hour collection of urine. Because the release of oxytocin can be situational, a 24-hour collection of urine may yield a better idea of the hormone’s availability than a single sample of blood.
Dr. Flechas has used doses of 10-40 IU in his patients with fibromyalgia. In “Passion, Sex, and Long Life, the Incredible Oxytocin Adventure,” Dr. Thierry Hertoghe recommends using oxytocin in doses such as 5 IU in the morning. Even smaller doses can be used with children, such as 1-2 IU. Those who are interested in using oxytocin for orgasm can add another 5 IU in the evening. Doses that are too high, or high and prolonged, can interfere with adrenal cortisol enough to create fatigue.
Too Little and Too Much?
Some possible symptoms of oxytocin deficiency may include:
- Lack of warmth in social situations, socially isolated
- Absence of smiles
- Disturbed easily by other people
- Low sex drive
- Less intense or lack of orgasms
- Lack of ejaculation in men
- Pale skin
- Cold hands and feet
- Muscle tension
- Flank Pain
- High Blood Pressure
Some possible symptoms of excess oxytocin (usually from supplementation) may include:
- Excessive expressions of love
- Excess sex drive
From “Passion, Sex and Long Life, the Incredible Oxytocin Adventure” by Dr. Thierry Hertoghe
There are many ways to administer oxytocin supplements, each of which produces varied results. Sublingual dosing generally allows for rapid absorption but also causes its effects to wear off quickly. Oral dosing tends to produce slower absorption and longer effectiveness. Injectable dosing will likely produce the fastest and strongest results. Intranasal dosage forms are also available, but seem to be less well absorbed and require higher dosage amounts according to Dr. Hertoghe. In addition, a study was published in Norway that showed the successful use of a topical gel form to treat vaginal atrophy.
Food for Thought
Most of us experience pleasure after eating a meal. This may be a direct effect of oxytocin. Dr. Uvnäs-Moberg introduces the idea that the inner touch of food stimulates digestive enzymes, which in turn stimulate a major nerve that allows for a rush of oxytocin. With massage therapies, both the person receiving and giving the massage experience the release of oxytocin. Our digestive system has been described as an inner skin; might eating and the passage of food be a sort of massage, aiding in this hormone’s production?
Diet influences the effectiveness of oxytocin treatment. Dr. Uvnäs-Moberg explains that fattier meals may produce more of an effect than carbohydrate- or protein-dominant meals. Dr. Hertoghe points out that alcohol us and a high carbohydrate diet may negate oxytocin activity.
Our wonderful bodies are so complex that we may never learn all of its intricacies. Oxytocin and its myriad activities in the body, its dual nature, and its unique feedback systems, are just beginning to be recognized and understood by the medical community. The possibilities of its supplementation are tantalizing, but in learning how this hormone functions, we can also make lifestyle changes to ensure we optimize our natural capacity to produce this hormone.
Connections is a publication of Women’s International Pharmacy, which is dedicated to the education and management of PMS, menopause, infertility, postpartum depression, and other hormone-related conditions and therapies.
This publication is distributed with the understanding that it does not constitute medical advice for individual problems. Although this material is intended to be accurate, proper medical advice should be sought from a competent healthcare professional.
Publisher: Constance Kindschi Hegerfeld, Executive VP – Women’s International Pharmacy
Co-Editors: Michelle Violi, PharmD; Sheena Hirschfield – Women’s International Pharmacy
Writer: Carol Petersen, RPh, CNP – Women’s International Pharmacy
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