When we learn about the hormone oxytocin in most anatomy and physiology classes, we are instructed with reference to its importance during and just after a mother giving birth. We are told it helps with uterine contractions during labor and that it facilitates the “letting-down” or expression of milk from the mammary glands. We are also told it is released in the baby’s body to ease the stress of entering the birth canal during the delivery process. Beyond that, textbooks say little else.
In recent years, though, there are those who have been studying and uncovering more about oxytocin and its effects beyond childbirth. Long thought to have something to do with the bonding between mother and child during the first few weeks and months of life, this attachment was thought, at least in part, to be a natural outcome of the physical and psychological connections developed during breast-feeding and cuddling. Until fairly recently, little attention has been given to the chemical effects of the hormone itself.
What Is Oxytocin?
Initially discovered by English researcher Sir Henry Dale in 1906, oxitocin (named from the Greek words for “quick” and “childbirth labor”) was found to speed up the birthing process and promoted the expulsion of breast-milk. More recently it has been found to influence areas of human behavior related to trust and empathy, as well as a reduction of anxiety and lessening of aggressiveness.
Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the hypothalamus and secreted by the dorsal (posterior) lobe of the pituitary gland in both sexes, but in women its effects are enhanced and expanded because of their higher estrogen levels. The presence of estrogen increases the number of oxytocin receptors and stimulates production of oxytocin. Oxytocin is also produced in the ovaries and testes as well as walls of blood vessels and in the heart. It is considered a neurotransmitter, much the same as serotonin or dopamine, but once released from into the bloodstream it cannot reenter the brain itself because of the blood-brain barrier. Instead, the neurological effects are thought to be caused by a release from certain neurons into the body, which in turn affect certain neurological responses. Oxytocin fuels a coordinating and modulating system that works through the bloodstream and nerve branches linking to important control centers of the brain.
Oxytocin has effects of its own, influencing the rest and digest mechanism in the nervous system. But it also works closely in combination with another hormone, vasopressin, which is important in the flight or fight mechanism. Together they form a kind of yin/yang balance and, when working properly, allow our bodies and minds to respond in healthy ways to what is presented by the world around us.
Massage and Oxytocin
According to Dr. Kerstin Uvnäs Moberg, author of The Oxytocin Factor, massage is one of the best ways to get oxytocin released into the body. She states that during a massage session, oxytocin is released not only in the person receiving the massage, but also in the giver. “Massage therapists show typical effects of high levels of oxytocin,” writes Moberg, “such as lower levels of stress hormones and lower blood pressure.”
Many studies have shown the effectiveness of massage in helping to reduce everyday stress, enhancing the immune system and generally making people feel more healthy and relaxed. And, massage has been shown to facilitate an increased release of natural oxitocin.
The Effects of Oxytocin
The release of oxitocin into the blood steam is thought to have important effects, both psychological and physiological. Some results from recent studies, include:
- Autism – Children with autism have been found to have significantly lower levels of oxytocin, as well as hyperactivity in the amagdyla where most oxytocin receptors are located. Studies on individuals with autism have shown a reduction in repetitive behaviors when oxytocin was introduced intravenously.
- Enhanced Digestion – Oxytocin has been found to regulate the process of digestion. It stimulates the release of various digestive hormones and gastric juices, which in turn lead to a more effective absorption of nutrients.
- Facilitates Wound Healing – Oxytocin accelerates the body’s healing process in part by helping to rejuvenate mucous membranes and encouraging the production of anti-inflammatory reactions.
- Maternal Behavior – In animal studies, mothers given oxytocin bonded with babies who were not their natural offspring. They tried to nurse them and protect them from intruders. Many of the mothers had never given birth. Normally, these unfamiliar babies would have been rejected or even attacked by them.
- Increasing Trust – Human subjects given oxytocin via a nasal spray, displayed a higher level of trust – twice as often as the control group. In one study, small doses of inhaled oxytocin reduced the wariness of strangers in volunteers, while another appeared to make them more empathetic and generous with their money.
- Reducing Anxiety – Clinical trials using oxytocin sprays have been shown to reduce anxiety and ease symptoms of shyness. It seems to reduce timidity and may help to increase confidence, leading to improved healthy social interaction.
Additionally, oxytocin counters the effects of cortisol, a stress hormone, which, if over long periods of time is produced in high levels in the body, can lead to high blood pressure, lowered immune function and even clinical depression. Sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been found to have higher than normal levels of cortisol, and studies with regard to the effectiveness in massage and oxytocin production to reduce cortisol levels are being considered.
Massage for World Peace?
In 1995 Robert Noah Calvert, founder of Massage Magazine, wrote a novel titled, The Hundredth Monkey Conspiracy. In it he described how an organized group of massage therapists conspire to influence a global peace initiative through their work on world leaders, politicians and other influential people. If massage is an effective way to increase levels of oxitocin, and oxytocin is responsible for making people more prone to be less aggressive, more trusting and empathetic – then Mr. Calvert may have been on to something!