These Oxytocin Benefits Can Greatly Help in AFS Recovery
Oxytocin has been called the “love hormone” because of its beneficial effects on relationships, altruism, and social bonding. There is some research evidence that oxytocin benefits the experience of spirituality and helps relieve stress.
What Is Oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a chemical located in the brain, mostly in the hypothalamus, that is both a neurotransmitter and a hormone. It has two classifications. In chemistry, it is classified as a nonapeptide, a peptide with nine amino acids. In biology, it is classified as a neuropeptide, indicating its origin and work in the brain.
The pituitary gland, located at the base of the brain, is the secretory gland for this chemical. Two female reproductive functions are affected by oxytocin when it’s secreted by the pituitary: childbirth and breastfeeding. In the latter case, one of the oxytocin benefits is in stimulating mother-infant bonding.
Some researchers have called oxytocin “the great facilitator of life” because of its effects on motility of the womb during labor. More recent research has found other oxytocin benefits in other areas of life.
Research has shown oxytocin to play a significant role in social relationships, feelings of empathy and generosity, and in sexual enjoyment. As a hormone, oxytocin forms the foundation of emotions such as trust. As a neurotransmitter, it plays a major role in alleviating depressive feelings.
Hugging and kissing someone emotionally close to you will increase oxytocin levels. High levels of this hormone have been found in couples in the first six months of a relationship. This is the reason it’s often called the “love hormone.”
However, there is also a more negative side to oxytocin benefits. Its function in strengthening bonds among members of a group can also serve to increase the distinction in members of that group between those who belong to the group and those who don’t. This increase in distinction can set the stage for discrimination toward those who aren’t members of the group. Ongoing research in this area is supporting the complexity found in biological and psychological systems.
Oxytocin Benefits in Spirituality
Along with oxytocin benefits in sexual and other relationships, some research has also found it aids in the experience of spirituality. This research broadly defined spirituality and included meditation as one aspect of it.
Spirituality, in general, is a difficult subject area for researchers to define. Some people limit spirituality to what is experienced in religion, while others include nature, art, inner harmony, feelings of peace, and meditation.
In any case, spirituality is a complex and important aspect of human beings that are found in all cultures and societies. Spirituality seems to be the expression of humanity’s search for essential meaning in life. This expression is shown in a multitude of ways.
Regardless of how it is expressed, medical research strongly suggests spirituality is a major component of good physical and mental health. This makes it a worthy topic of consideration in understanding how the human being operates as a complex, interdependent organism.
With this basis of knowing spirituality and meditation underlie good health, researchers at Duke University explored oxytocin benefits in these two areas. Their study showed men to report greater feelings of spirituality and more positive emotions during meditation shortly after taking oxytocin and again a week later.
The reported increase in feelings related to spirituality occurred regardless of membership in any organized religion. Not all subjects were affected equally by oxytocin. Those who had a variant of the gene CD38; the gene that controls the release of oxytocin from the hypothalamus, reported greater positive feelings regarding spirituality.
Men and women also appear to respond to oxytocin differently. The subjects in this research at Duke University were all male. Further research into female responses to oxytocin benefits in spirituality is ongoing.
Oxytocin Benefits in Reducing Stress Response
Stress is one of the most unfortunate and damaging effects of our modern society. In every aspect of our daily lives, stress or the possibility of stress is evident. Research has shown over and over again how detrimental stress is for health.
One of the more recent areas that show these detrimental stress effects is adrenal fatigue syndrome (AFS). This condition occurs when the body is subjected to unrelenting, increasing stress from any source. One of the first things that happen is activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The end result of this activation is stimulation of the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol, the stress-fighting hormone. As more and more stress piles up, the adrenals become less able to secrete sufficient cortisol, resulting in the beginning of vague symptoms of AFS. If not alleviated appropriately, these symptoms increase and grow worse, often leading to being bedfast.
Most traditionally-trained physicians are not able to adequately and effectively assess or address AFS and its symptoms. These physicians approach remediation in a symptom-based manner. A more comprehensive and adequate approach to both assessment and remediation of AFS is the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) model of stress response. This model views all health issues from the standpoint of six interdependent, interrelated organ systems in which something that affects one, affects others if not all of the systems. This approach allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the root causes of symptoms. More effective remediation efforts follow.
Understanding of the mechanism of how oxytocin benefits reduction of stress will be beneficial in dealing with AFS. This mechanism appears to be inhibiting the activation of the HPA axis when stress hits.
Previous research into oxytocin benefits showed lactating women to have lower levels of ACTH, cortisol, and reduced glucose responses compared to non-lactating women. Higher levels of oxytocin are present in lactating women. Another double blind, placebo controlled study found oxytocin in the form of a nasal spray, along with social support, to reduce stress levels in men faced with a public speaking assignment. The supplemental oxytocin reduced cortisol and increased the feeling of calmness. This indicates oxytocin may be a significant reducer of stress responses.
Another of the oxytocin benefits that aids in the reduction of AFS symptoms and their health effects is research that indicates oxytocin to reduce intestinal inflammation. This inflammation is the foundation of many significant chronic illness conditions that may result from AFS. It also adds to serious immune system disorders such as food sensitivities, autoimmune illness conditions, and systemic infections.
One of the ways oxytocin appears to aid in the repair of the intestinal lining is by increasing the release of prostaglandin E2 in cells lining the intestines. This helps in both repairs of damage and protecting the lining from further damage. This property makes oxytocin a viable way to deal with chronic illness conditions such as irritable bowel disease.
With the increasing body of evidence that shows a significant connection between the brain and the gut, finding a chemical like oxytocin that can improve gut function is a boon to overall health. One way this can be shown is through the production of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that aids in fighting depression and increasing feelings of well-being. It is made primarily in the cells lining the intestinal wall. When these cells are damaged or weakened by inflammation that can be produced by leaky gut syndrome associated with AFS, the amount of serotonin available is significantly reduced. This can lead to an increase in depression. Oxytocin appears to benefit the gut by improving the functioning of these cells by reducing inflammation.
Here again, the complexity of psychological responses must be taken into consideration. Some research indicates levels of endogenous oxytocin in people with anorexia increases after meals. This increase is higher if those people also suffered from depression. This suggests at least one psychological condition in which supplemental oxytocin is contraindicated.
AFS also affects cardiac function. Research has shown oxytocin moderates the response of the heart to stress. Other research has shown oxytocin to decrease blood pressure in male rats. This finding was not seen in female rats.
Oxytocin and cortisol are opposing hormones. When the level of one goes up, the level of the other must go down. Balancing the two is the key to a happy lifestyle.
Cortisol is the hormone that, when it increases, accelerates aging, and increases loneliness and depression. Cortisol output elevates in early stages of adrenal fatigue and falls in the later stages of adrenal fatigue. When cortisol decreases, inflammation increases with its corresponding effects on aging and illness conditions. With increased cortisol, it becomes easier to emotionally detach from others, disconnect, and walk away without looking back. These are also symptoms of low oxytocin.
Yet another indication of the complexity of human psychological responses was made clear in research studying oxytocin benefits for people with negative caregiving experiences in childhood compared to those who did not have these experiences. Researchers found those in the first category to have less of a response to oxytocin.
Negative caregiving experiences were defined as parental divorce, experiencing harsh parental discipline (typically with physical force), or the lack of maternal love in childhood. One of the effects of oxytocin shown in research is an increase of empathetic feelings towards the disadvantaged. Research has shown adult subjects’ willingness to donate money to a worthy cause increased with oxytocin administration, but only if those subjects’ childhood did not contain excessively harsh discipline. These findings suggest decreased trust and gains in sociability for those subjects who had harsh discipline in their childhoods.
Drawbacks of Oxytocin
In addition to the few cautions already mentioned, there are some other drawbacks to the use of oxytocin as a drug. Researchers at Northwestern University found that oxytocin can also bring on emotional pain.
A part of the brain called the lateral septum, which plays a role in emotional responses, is where oxytocin works to enhance social memory. In this part of the brain, oxytocin not only increases positive social memories, it also increases the experience of stressful social situations. These stressful situations are long lasting, bringing on feelings of anxiety or fear later in life.
If a social experience is stressful, oxytocin in this area of the brain reinforces and intensifies it. Because the intensification is self-perpetuating, it works to make you fearful in future incidents that are stressful. Those who are already in a state of high anxiety need to be especially careful as a result. Currently, there is no dietary supplement that directly or effectively influences the release of this hormone. Most likely in a similar fashion, oxytocin has been found to increase negative emotions under stressful conditions. This finding came from a research investigating the use of oxytocin as a way of alleviating anxiety. The researchers suggested this finding to be important because chronic stress, such as that encountered in AFS, can lead to depression and anxiety. They also were hopeful that oxytocin, with its double effect of either triggering or reducing anxiety depending on social context, could be modified to only improve feelings of well-being.
It appears part of the mechanism whereby oxytocin triggers anxious feelings may be through a signaling molecule called ERK. This molecule is activated for a period of six hours following negative social interactions. Oxytocin enhances negative memories of those social interactions. This knowledge may be beneficial in making oxytocin more of an approach to decreasing anxiety from these social interactions.
Another potential drawback of oxytocin lies in its tendency to increase the strength of ties to a group. This makes it possible for a person with significant levels of oxytocin to lie for the benefit of their group.
© Copyright 2017 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
Dr. Lam’s Key Question
Describe how oxytocin benefits AFS sufferers.
Oxytocin has been shown to reduce the effects of stress, which is a major contributor to AFS. Decreasing stress will decrease the intensity of AFS symptoms. One benefit of oxytocin is a direct positive effect of reducing inflammation, which is a foundation of the serious consequences of AFS.