What is oxytocin and what functions does this hormone do? What is the role of oxytocin in our mind and behavior?
Oxytocin is one of those substances that make the study areas of neurosciences and biology more interesting.
The reason is that oxytocin is closely related to affective ties of all kinds, both those that are as strong as those experienced by couples of lovers as the most diffuse, such as those that unite a person with their community of friends and neighbors…
Oxytocin is, then, a small piece of body chemistry that allows us to scientifically explain sensations as intense and inexplicable as those that have to do with love. This is what makes many people try to understand how it works to get an idea about the nature of what they feel when they see a certain person, when they hug someone, or when they kiss.
What is oxytocin?
But let’s start with the basics. What is oxytocin? It is basically a substance produced by our own body, specifically, in a structure of the brain called the hypothalamus and other organs spread throughout the body. Regarding its function, oxytocin is tremendously versatile and can act as a hormone and as a neurotransmitter.
As a hormone, it travels through the blood to reach different tissues and organs of the human body and make them react in a determined way, following protocols designed by thousands of years of evolution and that has to do with our way of adjusting to different situations in the best possible way.
As a neurotransmitter, oxytocin travels between small spaces where communication between neurons is established (so-called synaptic spaces) and therefore plays a role in the transmission of electrical signals throughout the nervous system, including the brain.
Functions of this hormone
However, one of its most significant concrete functions has to do with love and affection. Oxytocin participates in this aspect of our life as a hormone and also as a neurotransmitter.
1. Linked to love
It is often said that oxytocin is the substance responsible for the existence of love. This is a reductionist and somewhat risky conclusion, taking into account that there is no single conception of what love is and, in any case, in the subjective experience related to affection and falling in love many other substances intervene. Oxytocin, as with all neurotransmitters, you never work alone: it is always embedded in a biochemical puzzle that shapes our mind and our actions.
However, it is true that there are some patterns in which you can see the relationship between oxytocin and all that set of experiences and processes that have to do with love and affection.
For example, oxytocin levels increase when familiar faces have to be recognized. They also increase when they look into each other’s eyes with loved ones, play a role in remembering members of their own group and, in general, are segregated in relatively large amounts in situations related to love and attachment. When we experience the sensation of sharing an intimate relationship with another person and when we feel that we are in an environment of trust, more oxytocin is secreted, as explained in the article on the chemistry of love.
In fact, it has been seen that in people with chronic depression who are given an extra dose of oxytocin, they tend to pay more attention to happy faces than to sad ones.
2. Regulator of births and motherhood
Oxytocin intervenes in other, more varied processes. Etymologically, the word “oxytocin” means “fast birth” in Greek. This is because, as a hormone, oxytocin has a very important role in childbirth and, by extension, in breastfeeding, two fundamental processes in motherhood, as proved by the physiologist Henry Dale, who named this substance.
Specifically, oxytocin causes certain muscle fibers in the uterus to remain contracted during labor and is also responsible for contractions before birth. In addition, oxytocin has certain mechanical effects on the breasts, causing them to eject breast milk.
3. The role of this hormone in sexuality
During sexual intercourse, oxytocin levels in the blood tend to be significantly higher than normal. This reinforces the hypothesis that this hormone has an important role in the chemical and mechanical processes that intervene in sexuality.
It has been proven, for example, that oxytocin intervenes in the appearance of vaginal contractions that make it easier for sperm to reach the ovule. In the case of men, it produces contractions in the prostate and the semi vesicles. In addition, both men and women oxytocin blood levels reach their maximum during orgasm.
4. Creating social links
As we have seen, oxytocin is strongly associated with the generation of affective bonds, and not only those related to motherhood.
This is not coincidental. The fact of being able to count on the help and support of other people is one of the great evolutionary advantages that our species has had, and that is why it can be said that oxytocin is part of that social glue that has benefited us so much. If the fact of coming into contact with a person causes us to secrete more oxytocin, in the long run, one enters into a chemical and relational dynamic in which personal ties are very strong. In this way, the bond becomes very resistant and remains over time.