Oxytocin helps ignite romantic and sexual sparks
Oxytocin might be best known for the role it plays in bringing on labour and childbirth, but the substance also seems to have libido-boosting effects on men and women alike. And there’s a growing body of research that backs up not only its purported positive effects on arousal but also its apparent ability to bring on feelings of loyalty and empathy.
Also known as the “cuddle chemical” and the “love hormone”, oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone that triggers uterine contractions and stimulates the release of breast milk. Its synthetic form, which goes by brand names like Pitocin and Syntocinon, can induce labour and reduce postpartum bleeding. Don’t confuse oxytocin with OxyContin, a highly addictive painkiller that’s said to bring on a heroinlike euphoria.
Brian Martin, a Vancouver naturopath who’s head of the EnerChanges Clinic, says that oxytocin appears to heighten sexual response. In both sexes, the substance is released during orgasm. The more sexually excited someone is, the more oxytocin she produces, creating a desirable cycle of, well, desire.
Women in particular seem to benefit.
“It helps women achieve orgasm and even have multiple orgasms,” Martin says on the line from his West Side office. “It brings on sexual excitement.”
It can also help establish a sense of closeness in couples who have “lost a little bit of that spark”, Martin notes.
He hasn’t used oxytocin widely in his practice—in part because licensed naturopaths have only been legally allowed to prescribe drugs in B.C. since last fall—but he also cautions that it’s not a miracle medicine.
“There are so many hormones that interplay when it comes to sex,” he says, including testosterone, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
However, he says research into the substance’s ability to enhance intimacy and improve quality of life is promising.
According to the Washington, D.C.–based American Chemical Society, oxytocin levels rise in animals after rhythmic touch. Moreover, just as the cells of the hypothalamus produce oxytocin, so too do those in the ovaries, testicles, heart, and blood-vessel walls.
Animal studies also indicate that oxytocin injections can decrease blood pressure, reduce anxiety and depression, increase pain threshold, and speed wound healing.
Oxytocin, which is also a neurotransmitter, plays a large role in the brain, though more research is required to fully understand exactly what it does.
A small 2010 study published in The Journal of Neuroscience found that oxytocin brings out sensitive feelings in men. Researchers from Germany’s Bonn University and the Babraham Institute of Cambridge found that men who used an oxytocin nasal spray showed significantly higher levels of emotional empathy than those who didn’t.
Another 2010 study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that oxytocin intensifies men’s memories of their mothers’ affections during childhood.
Men with higher concentrations of oxytocin in their bloodstreams were more likely to prioritize their group’s interests over their own, according to a study published last year in Science. It concluded that oxytocin promoted trust and cooperation.
The hormone also appears to affect behaviour in partnerships. A dose of it reduced the stress hormone cortisol in arguing couples, according to a study that appeared in Biological Psychiatry in 2008.
Furthermore, a small study published last year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that oxytocin could play a role in helping people with autism communicate and interact effectively with others. That came on the heels of other studies that found levels of the hormone were deficient in people with autism.
With so much seemingly going for it, it’s a wonder that oxytocin isn’t one of the world’s top-selling drugs. However, most research to date has involved short-term studies and small sample sizes, while large-scale, long-term scientific investigation into its uses outside of the maternity ward is still lacking. Nevertheless, some are turning to the Internet to make money off of it.
New York’s Vero Labs calls its oxytocin body spray Nature’s Trust Hormone and Liquid Trust. “When it comes to relationships, it all starts with trust,” the company’s website states. It even goes so far as to say the substance will give people an edge when it comes to landing a job, asking for a raise, or closing a deal.
Vero Labs sells a “two-week supply”—a quarter-ounce bottle—of the body spray for US$29.95. “Everyone you encounter will immediately and unconsciously detect the pure human Oxytocin in Liquid Trust that you are wearing,” the website states. “Without realizing why, the people around you have a strong feeling of trust. They can’t explain it, but you know that Liquid Trust is doing its magic.”
Although the amount used in a spritz of body spray would be far lower than what’s administered to induce labour, the substance can cause side effects such as nausea, vomiting, and cardiac arrhythmias.
Martin advises exercising caution before buying oxytocin online.
“Anyone who’s considering it needs to talk to their doctor first,” he says, “especially if they have any preexisting conditions such as thyroid problems.”
And they also need to be careful if they’re using an oxytocin body spray and find themselves around pregnant women, especially those at term—one whiff could bring on labour.