Science, Science and Technology

“The Love Hormone”

In anticipation of Valentines Day, I thought I’d write something a little topical. But instead of giving you my “top 10 tips to find the one” or some horribly generic dating ideas, I thought I’d tell you a little bit about a hormone that may well help make the romance happen, oxytocin. In my quest to find out more about this “love hormone” I’ve googled some pretty strange things from the library computers (to some startled looks from those around me) and looked at some very intriguingly named research papers and here’s what I found.

Oxytocin, also called the “love hormone”, “cuddle chemical”, or “moral molecule” is a protein hormone made in the brain. Its main and most widely accepted function is causing contractions during labour (feeling the romance yet?) and is involved in facilitating lactation. It can be given intravenously to induce labour when a woman has difficulties during childbirth.

Where’s the romance in that? Hold on, I’m getting there…

Yep, this funny little hormone might be part of the reason for all your heartbreak...
Yep, this funny little arrangement of atoms might be part of the reason for all your heartbreak…

Oxytocin has a diverse variety of functions, making it very interesting to study, and studies have found a variety of effects on relationships, including trust, fidelity and openness. Studies have found that oxytocin helps strengthen the bond between mother and child, and even between couples. Studies have shown that in the early stages of a relationship in particular, oxytocin levels in couples rise, and couples with higher levels of the hormone in the first 6 months seem to stay together longer. Levels of oxytocin are exceptionally high in prairie voles, one of the most monogamous (faithful to only one partner) species on Earth, who go through 24 hours of mating, before bonding for life (a surefire way to win a female’s heart). Perhaps their highly monogamous lifestyle can be attributed to these high levels of oxytocin.

An experiment to test oxytocin’s effects on monogamy was conducted at the University of Bonn, Germany. Oxytocin was sprayed up the noses of male participants, allowing the chemical to reach the brain, and the men were introduced to an attractive woman. Men who had been given oxytocin and were in a stable relationship were found to keep more of a distance between themself and the woman, remaining outside of her personal space (which is an actual scientific measurement), than both single men who had been given oxytocin, and men who were in relationships but had not been given the hormone. Maybe the aim of this effect is to prevent men in relationships from straying, by encouraging them to keep a greater physical distance between themselves and women other than their loved one.

Levels of oxytocin increase during sex, and even just hugging and kissing. As it appears to strengthen relationships and increase trust between couples, it’s been suggested that the release of the hormone increases the emotional connection between two people who have just “done the deed”, making them feel closer and more trusting. It seems to work as part of the brain’s reward system, making experiences like having sex, cuddling and kissing feel more rewarding, increasing the desire to do it again and reinforcing it as a positive and pleasant experience. The evolutionary reasons for this are unclear, but one suggestion is that it may increase uterine motility (remember, oxytocin can have effects on the uterus), helping sperm to reach the egg, with the side-effect being an emotional connection. Or maybe this is evolutionary too.

As much as I enjoy this speculation, I have to confess, I cannot call oxytocin the “love hormone”. In fact, even labelling it as that makes me squirm a little; it’s such a huge generalisation and sounds kind of like one of those headlines you see in The Daily Mail. Oxytocin likely doesn’t work alone, and a few studies finding links between the hormone and love aren’t enough to prove its identity as a “love hormone”, as we’re still unsure of exactly what its role in sex and relationships is. It’s not soley responsible for the success of your relationship or the fact that you fell head over heels for the last person you slept with, though it seems like it might play a part. It’s not some kind of love potion that you can harvest and use to woo a potential lover this Valentine’s Day. Sprinkle a little into their dinner and you’ll fall in love. But it is exciting to think that there’s a protein that helps love a little along the way, the cupid of hormones… ok, maybe I’m getting carried away again. I’ll stop now before I start writing poetry.

Thank you for reading! Please feel free to add your comments and thoughts using the reply button below or the comments button at the top of this post (depending on how you’re viewing this post).

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