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9 Beneficial Effects of Oxytocin + 34 Ways to Increase it

Written by Puya Yazdi, MD | Last updated:
Matt Carland
Medically reviewed by
Matt Carland, PhD (Neuroscience) | Written by Puya Yazdi, MD | Last updated:

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Some call it the “love hormone”: oxytocin helps us form social bonds and improves our mood. How does it work, and what factors increase or decrease it? Find out here.

Functions & Benefits of Oxytocin

In this section, we’ll discuss the normal functions of oxytocin, and some of the potential benefits of intranasal oxytocin. Note, however, that intranasal oxytocin has only been approved for specific medical purposes (such as treatment-resistant depression and stimulating labor during pregnancy), and it should only be administered with a doctor’s approval [1, 2].

If you believe that you might benefit from oxytocin, discuss this option with your doctor. In general, we strongly recommend against using oxytocin on your own — especially if you are pregnant.

1) Social Interaction

Giving oxytocin to people increases trust and generosity and reduces their fear of social betrayal [3].

Disclosure of emotional events is a sign of trust in humans. When recounting a negative event, humans who receive oxytocin (nasal) share more emotional details and stories with more emotional significance.

In one study, oxytocin increased generosity in the Ultimatum Game by 80%. This is a game where someone receives money and proposes how to divide the sum between himself and another player. The second player chooses to either accept or reject this proposal. If the second player accepts, the money is split according to the proposal. If the second player rejects, neither player receives any money [4].

Oxytocin supplementation increased empathy in healthy men. Even after experiencing social alienation, people who received intranasal oxytocin were still more trusting of others [5].

In mice, oxytocin inhibited fear responses by inhibiting activation of the amygdala [6].

Some researchers have argued oxytocin has a general enhancing effect on all social emotions; intranasal oxytocin has also increased envy and “Schadenfreude(joy at the pain of others) in human trials [7].

Social Cues

In a study of 69 healthy adult men, intranasal oxytocin decreased memory of bad experiences and improved memory of social information, as measured by the recognition of human faces. The participants showed improved recognition of positive social cues compared to threatening social cues after receiving oxytocin [8].

For example, males given oxytocin show improved memory for human faces, in particular, happy faces. They also show improved recognition for positive social cues over threatening social cues and improved recognition of fear.

Romance

Oxytocin increases romantic attraction and attachment in males as well and helps promote fidelity within monogamous relationships [9].

2) Sexual Health

Oxytocin is a major sex hormone. It plays an especially prominent role in female sexual function, but it mediates romantic bonding in both men and women. Furthermore, measurable drops in blood oxytocin are associated with sexual dysfunction in women taking antidepressant medication [10, 11].

However, researchers have yet to identify a way to use oxytocin to reliably improve sexual dysfunction. In one study, intranasal oxytocin appeared to improve markers of sexual function in thirty perimenopausal women; however, the placebo also improved the same markers, meaning that the improvement could not be attributed to the oxytocin treatment [12].

In 58 healthy adults (29 heterosexual couples), intranasal oxytocin did not improve sex drive, arousal, penile erection, or vaginal lubrication, considered the “classic” markers of sexual function. However, researchers observed improvements to reported orgasm intensity and sexual satisfaction in both men and women who received intranasal oxytocin [13].

3) Mood

Oxytocin evokes feelings of contentment and trust and reductions in social anxiety [14].

Under certain circumstances, oxytocin appears to indirectly inhibit the release of stress hormones such as cortisol. However, no studies have yet identified a way to use oxytocin to reliably reduce anxiety or improve symptoms of depression. Many studies have attempted the feat, but their findings have been inconclusive [15, 16].

4) Inflammation

Some researchers believe that oxytocin prevents neuroinflammation and therefore protects neurons in the developing brain. Oxytocin has been found to prevent severe damage in animal models of stroke, and recent evidence suggests a role for protecting the fetal and infant brain during gestation, birth trauma, and early growth [17].

The role of oxytocin in inflammation beyond the brain or in the adult body is unclear.

5) Appetite

Oxytocin neurons in the hypothalamus may help suppress appetite under normal conditions, and other hypothalamic neurons may trigger eating via inhibition of these oxytocin neurons [18, 19].

This population of oxytocin neurons is absent in Prader-Willi syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes intellectual disability, impaired growth, uncontrollable eating, and obesity [18].

6) Water Retention

Due to its similarity to vasopressin, it can reduce the excretion of urine and sodium slightly [20].

Potential Benefits (Lacking Evidence)

No firm or conclusive clinical evidence supports the use of oxytocin for any of the conditions listed in this section. Below is a summary of the existing animal and cell-based research, which should guide further investigational efforts. As such, the studies listed below should not be interpreted as supportive of any health benefit.

7) Drug Addiction

Oxytocin is currently under investigation for its potential to inhibit the development of tolerance to various addictive drugs (opiates, cocaine, alcohol) and reduce withdrawal symptoms. Oxytocin administration has reduced addictive behavior in animal studies, but not in human trials so far [21].

Conditions With a Dysfunctional Oxytocin System

  • Autism [22]
  • Schizophrenia [23]
  • Borderline Personality Disorder [24, 25, 26]
  • Prader-Willi syndrome [18]

In-Group Favoritism

Oxytocin may strengthen existing social bonds (for example, between relatives/friends), but it does not help create new bonds between strangers, implying that it is less of a “love”, “empathy” or “moral” molecule and maybe more of an “us-versus-them” molecule [27].

Indeed, oxytocin may actually promote antisocial behaviors toward unfamiliar individuals [27].

Oxytocin can increase positive attitudes toward individuals with similar characteristics, who then become classified as “in-group” members, whereas individuals who are dissimilar become classified as “out-group” members [28].

Oxytocin promotes ethnocentric behavior, incorporating the trust and empathy of in-groups with their suspicion and rejection of outsiders. It promoted dishonesty when the outcome of lying benefited the group to which an individual belonged (the in-group) [29].

When given oxytocin, individuals alter their subjective preferences in order to align with in-group ideas over out-group ideals [30].

The in-group bias is evident in smaller groups; however, it can also be extended to groups as large as one’s entire country leading toward a tendency of strong national zeal. A study done in the Netherlands showed that oxytocin increased in-group favoritism of their nation while decreasing acceptance of members of other ethnicities and foreigners [31].

It has thus been hypothesized that this hormone may be a factor in “xenophobic” tendencies. Furthermore, oxytocin was correlated with participant desire to protect vulnerable in-group members [32].

Factors that Increase Oxytocin

Many factors have been found to increase oxytocin release or to activate oxytocin receptors, but these broadly lack enough clinical research to be considered effective for this purpose. Before making significant changes to your diet, exercise, or supplement regime, be sure to talk to your doctor to avoid adverse effects or unexpected interactions.

Sexual Behavior

Broadly speaking, sexual behavior triggers the release of oxytocin. More specifically, oxytocin is released during or after the following behaviors or events [10]:

  1. Having sex, or general sexual stimulation [33]
  2. Orgasm [34, 35]
  3. Nipple stimulation (in females / mothers) [36]
  4. Cuddling/touching [37]
  5. Falling in love [38]

Practices

The following lifestyle practices and events have been found to promote oxytocin release in at least one human study.

  1. Soothing music [39]
  2. Positive social encounters [10]
  3. Eating [40]
  4. Warm showers / Warm temperatures [37]
  5. Yoga [41, 42]
  6. Massage [43]
  7. Exercise (studied in pregnant women) [44]
  8. Certain forms of meditation (such as “Kindness Meditation”) [45]
  9. Petting dogs & other animals [46]
  10. Nursing [47]

Foods

Fenugreek is believed to be a “galactagogue” (stimulator of milk production) in Middle Eastern and South Asian systems of traditional medicine. Human trials are still lacking, however [48].

Scents

According to limited human trials, certain types of aromatherapy could potentially increase oxytocin release in the brain, thereby increasing trust and relaxation.

  1. Jasmine [49]
  2. Lavender builds trust and might increase oxytocin [50]

Natural Substances

Certain supplements and probiotics could potentially increase oxytocin release, but these are generally lacking in clinical research, and none have been approved by the FDA for this purpose. Talk to your doctor before using any new supplement.

Magnesium is required for oxytocin to function. Magnesium deficiency may impair oxytocin signalling, but no clinical trials have determined whether magnesium supplementation increases oxytocin release [51, 52].

Vitamin D has binding sites in the genes that produces the oxytocin receptor and an oxytocin precursor. Some researchers have suggested that vitamin D deficiency may increase a fetus’s odds of developing autism due to a lack of oxytocin [53].

L Reuteri probiotics increased oxytocin release in experimental rats, but human studies have not yet investigated this effect [54].

Likewise, caffeine increased brain oxytocin in mice, but this result has not been investigated in human studies [55].

Hormones

Other hormones interact with the oxytocin signalling system, but there is no particular evidence that taking or increasing these hormones imparts a benefit to oxytocin. We strongly advise against taking hormones without a doctor’s prescription.

  1. Melatonin may increase sensitivity to oxytocin [56, 57]
  2. Estrogen [40], though contradictory studies exist [58]
  3. TRH has mixed effects [59]

Drugs

Certain drugs have been found to increase oxytocin, but with significant adverse effects. We strongly advise against taking any illicit drugs for any reason.

  1. MDMA (also commonly known as “ecstasy”) [60]

Intergenerational Toxic Effects of BPA

One of the many reasons that bisphenol A (BPA) is considered dangerous is that it may decrease oxytocin across generations. In a mouse study, mothers with BPA levels similar to the average human produced offspring with impaired oxytocin and vasopressin signalling, an effect which persisted to the fourth generation of experimental animals [61].

Want Other Ways to Improve Your Mood?

If you’re interested in natural and targeted ways of improving your mood, we recommend checking out SelfDecode’s Mood DNA Wellness Report. It gives genetic-based diet, lifestyle and supplement tips that can help improve your mood. The recommendations are personalized based on your genes.

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About the Author

Puya Yazdi

Puya Yazdi

MD
Dr. Puya Yazdi is a physician-scientist with 14+ years of experience in clinical medicine, life sciences, biotechnology, and nutraceuticals.
As a physician-scientist with expertise in genomics, biotechnology, and nutraceuticals, he has made it his mission to bring precision medicine to the bedside and help transform healthcare in the 21st century.He received his undergraduate education at the University of California at Irvine, a Medical Doctorate from the University of Southern California, and was a Resident Physician at Stanford University. He then proceeded to serve as a Clinical Fellow of The California Institute of Regenerative Medicine at The University of California at Irvine, where he conducted research of stem cells, epigenetics, and genomics. He was also a Medical Director for Cyvex Nutrition before serving as president of Systomic Health, a biotechnology consulting agency, where he served as an expert on genomics and other high-throughput technologies. His previous clients include Allergan, Caladrius Biosciences, and Omega Protein. He has a history of peer-reviewed publications, intellectual property discoveries (patents, etc.), clinical trial design, and a thorough knowledge of the regulatory landscape in biotechnology.He is leading our entire scientific and medical team in order to ensure accuracy and scientific validity of our content and products.

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