How Oxytocin, the ‘Love Hormone,’ Can Help Your Heart
by Amy Barczy
| 3 min read
It turns out love is good for your heart health: hugging your partner can release a hormone in your body that helps protect your heart.
Researchers have found oxytocin may play a role in protecting the heart. It can reduce the body’s inflammatory response – improving both cardiovascular and metabolic function.
What is oxytocin?
It’s a hormone the body produces naturally. It’s earned the nickname of the “love hormone,” as it is released in the body as a part of romantic attachment and sexual arousal.
It also plays a role in social interactions including building recognition and trust; and it is a key component in parent-infant bonding. Most prominently, it plays a critical function in pregnant women to stimulate muscle contractions during childbirth and to help with lactation during breastfeeding.
Where oxytocin comes from
Hormones like oxytocin are chemicals the body uses to send messages and coordinate functions between organs, muscles and tissues. Oxytocin is made by the hypothalamus in the brain and is stored in the pituitary gland.
The body produces oxytocin as a result of nerve impulses during:
- Labor when the fetus pushes against the cervix. The release of oxytocin stimulates muscle contractions in the uterus.
- Breastfeeding when the baby sucks at the breast. The release of oxytocin causes contractions in cells in the breast ducts, allowing milk to release.
- Physical contact with a sexual partner.
There are synthetic forms of oxytocin most commonly used by health care providers to induce labor or speed up labor in pregnant women. If you have questions about how oxytocin may be used in the delivery of your child, talk to your health care provider.
How are oxytocin levels controlled?
When the body makes oxytocin, its release into the bloodstream prompts the body to release more oxytocin – creating a positive feedback loop.
For example, during childbirth, oxytocin is released until the baby is born and the pressure on the cervix stops. During breastfeeding, oxytocin is released until the baby stops feeding.
Some individuals may have lower than normal levels of oxytocin, which is rare. Research is ongoing into the dynamics of this condition.
Additionally, higher than normal levels of oxytocin are rare in women but more common in men. Almost half of men over the age of 60 are affected by benign prostatic hyperplasia – a condition linked to high levels of oxytocin in which the prostate grows in size and makes it difficult to urinate.
How does oxytocin affect the heart?
Scientists have discovered a number of positive impacts that oxytocin has on the heart.
Frequent hugs and higher levels of oxytocin have been linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate. Oxytocin also can reduce the body’s inflammatory response – improving cardiovascular functions. Studies are not conclusive, but oxytocin shows promise helping the heart regenerate cells and heal itself after a cardiac injury.
Researchers are continuing to study the myriad of ways oxytocin affects the body – and are evaluating it as a treatment option for autism and depression. Studies are also being conducted on oxytocin for use as a future treatment option to prevent long-term effects from COVID-19.