I've written quite a lot about oxytocin, which also goes by the name of "love hormone," "cuddle chemical," "molecule of kindness," or any other affectionate term that implies something about bonding and connecting.
If you ever wondered about those names, it's because we produce oxytocin when we're feeling love or connection (with a human, animal, tree, spiritual diety) and also when we hug.
Here's a little summary of some of the healthy things that happen in our bodies when we produce oxytocin.
1. It can make people seem more attractive
One study gave people a dose of oxytocin and then showed them photographs of men and women, asking them to rate their attractiveness. A different group were given saline instead of oxytocin, as a control. The oxytocin group gave the men and women higher attractiveness ratings than did those who got the saline.
2. It can make us more generous
A study in the field of "neuroeconomics" -- where scientists study the brain while people make economic decisions -- found that when people were given a squirt of oxytocin before they made an economic decision, where they had to decide on how they were going to share a sum of money, they were around 80 percent more generous than others who received a saline placebo.
3. It can make us more trusting
In an economics game known as the "Trust Game," participants given a squirt of oxytocin were found to be significantly more trusting than those given saline. Of those in the saline group, 21 percent showed the maximal trust level, yet 45 percent of those who received oxytocin showed the maximal trust level.
4. It can improve digestion
A little-known fact is that oxytocin and oxytocin receptors are found all throughout the GI tract. It plays an important role in the digestion of food (gastric motility and gastric emptyping). Research shows that in the absence of adequate levels of oxytocin, the whole digestive process slows down (known as gastric dysmotility).
In fact, some children with recurring tummy trouble or inflammatory bowel disease have been found to have low levels of oxytocin in their bloodstream. Oxytocin has even been linked with IBS.
You may have heard of the old wisdom that you shouldn't eat if you've just had a fight with a loved one. This is why. When we have a conflict, we reduce our levels of oxytocin, thereby making digestion a little more problematic.
Maybe if you want to improve your digestion, why not enjoy a meal with family or friends, or at least give someone a heartfelt hug before you start eating and again immediately afterwards.
5. It can speed up wound healing
Oxytocin also helps wound healing. It plays a key role in 'angiogenesis', which is the growth of blood vessels or re-growth of them after an injury.
Research shows that wounds take longer to heal when people are under stress or amid an emotional conflict, which is associated with lower oxytocin levels. In one study of couples, physical wounds of those who showed the most conflict behaviour healed 40 percent slower than wounds in those who weren't in conflict.
Other studies show that skin wounds may potentially heal faster when we enjoy positive social interaction.
6. It can be good for the heart
It can be very good for the heart. Oxytocin is a cardioprotective hormone, in that it protects the cardiovascular system. Oxytocin dilates the blood vessels, thereby lowering blood pressure and also helps sweep free radicals and inflammation out of the arteries. FYI, free radicals and inflammation can cause cardiovascular disease.
How to produce oxytocin
We produce oxytocin every day. It flows when you show empathy or compassion, when you are kind or genuinely pleasant, when you show affection, when you hug. Love is not the only thing we make in the intimate act. We also make oxytocin.
I find it amazing that this simple hormone, that we generate through really any heart-centred display of gentleness or affection, produces all of the above effects.
Animals, and especially dogs, help us produce it too. Research shows that when we play with dogs, oxytocin levels shoot up in both the human and the dog.
This is probably why studies show that having a pet hugely benefits the heart. In fact, among many ways to improve heart health, Dr Mimi Guarneri, founder of the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine and author of the book, 'The Heart Speaks', recommends having a dog.
My beloved dog, Oscar, passed away just five months ago at only two years of age. Losing him was the most painful thing I've ever known and I still miss him terribly. But I like the fact that dogs, and in fact all animals that we bond with, help us produce oxytocin and we, in turn, help them produce it. There's something beautiful in this, in the bond we create, and how it moulds our biology. It reminds me of why we need to see all humans and all animals as our family.