What is oxytocin and what functions does this hormone perform?
The oxytocin is one of those substances that make the field of study of neurosciences and biology more interesting.
The reason is that oxytocin is closely related to bonds of affection of all kinds, both those that are as strong as those experienced by loving couples and those that are more diffuse, such as those that bind a person to his or her community of friends and neighbors.
Oxytocin is therefore a small piece of body chemistry that allows us to scientifically explain sensations as intense and unexplainable as those that have to do with love. This is what makes many people try to understand how it works so that they can get an idea of 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 in other organs throughout the body. In terms of function, oxytocin is tremendously versatile, and can act as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter.
As a hormone, travels through the blood to reach different tissues and organs of the human body and make them react in a certain way , following protocols designed by thousands of years of evolution and that have to do with our way of adjusting to different situations in the best possible way.
As a neurotransmitter, oxytocin travels between the small spaces in which communication between neurons is established (the so-called synaptic spaces) and therefore has 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 does not cease to be a reductionist and somewhat risky conclusion, taking into account that there is not a single conception about what love is and, in any case, many other substances intervene in the subjective experience related to affection and falling in love. Oxytocin, as with all neurotransmitters, never works 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 that whole set of experiences and processes that have to do with love and affection.
For example, oxytocin levels increase when familiar faces are to be recognized . It also increases when looking into the eyes of loved ones, has a role in remembering members of one’s group, and is generally secreted in relatively large amounts in situations involving love and attachment. When we experience the feeling 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 found that people with chronic depression who are given an extra dose of oxytocin tend to pay more attention to happy faces than sad ones.
2. Regulator of childbirth and motherhood
Oxytocin is involved in a variety of other processes. Etymologically, the word “oxytocin” means “rapid birth” in Greek. This is because, as a hormone, oxytocin plays a very important role in childbirth and, by extension, in breastfeeding , two fundamental processes in motherhood, as the physiologist Henry Dale, who gave his name to this substance, proved.
Specifically, oxytocin causes certain muscle fibres in the uterus to remain contracted during birth , and is also responsible for the contractions that occur 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 sex, oxytocin levels in the blood are usually significantly higher than normal . This reinforces the hypothesis that this hormone plays an important role in the chemical and mechanical processes involved in sexuality.
It has been shown, for example, that oxytocin is involved in the development of vaginal contractions that make it easier for sperm to reach the egg. In men, it causes contractions in the prostate and seminal vesicles. In addition, in both men and women the levels of oxytocin in the blood reach their maximum during orgasm .
4. Creating social bonds
As we have seen, oxytocin is strongly associated with bonding s , and not only those related to motherhood.
This is no accident. The fact that we can count on the help and support of other people is one of the great evolutionary advantages our species has had, and that is why we can say that oxytocin is part of that social glue that has benefited us so much . If the fact of coming into contact with a person makes us secrete more oxytocin, in the long run we enter into a chemical and relational dynamic in which personal bonds are very strong. In this way, the bond becomes very resistant and remains over time.
- Delgado, J. M. (1998). Neuroscience Manual. Editorial Síntesis.
- Puelles, L. (2008). Neuroanatomy. Editorial Médica Panamericana.