A few weeks ago I wrote a piece here that encouraged a diet featuring chocolate mousse pie and ice cream accompanied by a relatively carefree, adventurous and active lifestyle as a ticket to weight loss and vibrant health. I had only anecdotal evidence to support my claim: Once upon a time I had an experience where I ate whatever I liked, felt really happy and lost weight. Well, I’m sure that by now y’all have had sufficient time to come back down to earth and realize me for the lunatic I am.
“Great” you probably said “So some chick had a fluke experience where she lost weight eating cake. Fat lot of good that does me, because whenever I eat cake I balloon up to the size of the goddamn Hindenburg.”
“And another thing” you likely huffed, “ She had NO science to back up her claim. For all I know she invented the whole thing, a fable of fudge eating fat loss- just to mess with our heads.”
I guess I had that coming.
So I’ll tell you what, this time let’s try something totally different. Let’s talk science. No fuzzy stories about my personal life, scouts honor. Let’s just get real nerdy and discuss hormones. I’ll even cite a scientific study or two. Capeesh?
What is it? You may know it as the hormone of labor, breast feeding and perhaps pair bonding. Maybe because of the long held belief that oxytocin was a hormone only of importance to ladies and all the weird lady stuff that our weird lady bodies do, the full scope of oxytocin’s role (in both sexes) is only now becoming fully understood. Thanks science. Don’t mind us girls, we’ll just sit quietly in the back until you wanna consider us worthy of your interest. How’s all that research on the female orgasm going, bytheway?
So what else does oxytocin do? After reading up on it for three weeks and still feeling like I’m scratching the surface, I’ve found that it has been shown to relieve pain in fibromyalgia patients, vanquish fear and anxiety, increase commitment to your partner, reduce voluntary caloric intake without slowing the metabolism, reduce abdominal fat, reduce liver fat, lower blood pressure, it has a role in building bones, soothes digestive inflammation, lowers cortisol, heats up icy hands and feet, increases glucose tolerance, decreases the size of adipocytes (fat storage cells), improves wound healing, prevents breast cancer, increases one’s sense of generosity, wellness, ease, trust and happiness.
Y’know, just to name a few small items.
Much of the “how” of oxytocin is still a subject of some speculation. Scientists still aren’t even sure where all the oxytocin receptors in the body are located, as most of their research has been on rats, and vast differences between different species of mammals have been discovered. For example, compared to humans, the prairie vole’s brain houses an extremely high number of oxytocin receptors. Relatedly, compared to us the prairie vole has a much more successful “marriage” rate. Yep, while we’re at about 50%, the prairie vole pretty much always mates for life. All they have to do is hang out with each other for one day following mating and the commitment of a lifetime is signed, sealed, delivered. If Mrs. P. Vole goes to the big prairie in the sky before her husband, he is never compelled to find a new lady friend. He’s a born again bachelor for life- and an adorable one to boot, I’m sure. I bet he even eats by himself in the same booth of their favorite diner every Friday evening, just like he did with his wife. Or something to that effect.
See, that’s how powerful this stuff is! Hey, you might not be going for the cute-lonely-prairie vole-widower thing, but oxytocin has so much more to offer! And guess what? You can increase your levels of oxytocin whenever you like, for free. Well mostly for free.
For starters, you can increase oxytocin by having sex with a partner (or yourself) that results in orgasm. Oxytocin works on the amygdala, the part of the brain that makes you afraid, tense and worried about controlling your behavior. Can you think of a better antidote to tension and freaking out about controlling oneself than the release of a rollicking orgasm? Some women have difficulty achieving sexual climax because they are nervous about their appearance, unsure about their own pleasure or simply unable to forget about commitments at work or whether or not little Jimmy’s T-ball uniform got washed in time for the game. To these women I say this: Quit it. You’re depriving yourself of a powerful hormone bath that will make you happier, healthier, and less stressed in general.
Just as important, you can up your oxytocin levels by having frequent, pleasant social interactions. You know how simply chatting with a kind or funny cashier after a long slog of a day can make you feel better? A little warmer, a little lighter? Or how about a phone call from a friend that makes you feel cared for? Connected? Well keep it up and call someone else to spread the wealth. Your oxytocin receptors are a-fire!
Being generous has been shown in many studies to increase oxytocin. That’s no surprise, think of how good you feel when you toss your spare change into the Salvation Army bucket. How ‘bout you stop being such a tightwad and add a few bills next time and feel the oxytocin positively gush from out the fount. Do it for your fatty liver. Though I suppose a selfish ulterior motive would ruin the whole generosity aspect of being generous, so forget your liver. Who needs it.
You can increase oxytocin by getting a massage. A study done by the University of California San Diego Medical Center demonstrates that “massage increases oxytocin and lowers adrenocorticotropic hormone…which may help explain the mechanisms through which social connections reduce morbidity and mortality.” Sounds good to me. So if you know a certain someone who could use an oxytocin boost, why not suggest they exercise their generosity muscle and buy you a really great massage? You both win!
You can increase oxytocin by not being one of those female athletes who stops getting their period. In a study done at Massachusetts General Hospital to prove the anabolic effects of oxytocin on bone, it was shown that amenorrheic female athletes had lower nocturnal oxytocin secretion than female non-athletes of comparable BMI. This resulted in weaker bones, even though as athletes these females do a lot of weight bearing exercises that actually strengthen bone. More evidence that working out so hard you lose your period ain’t a good thing.
You can also increase oxytocin by not using drugs that suppress it, like alcohol and opiates. The unfortunate thing is, so many fibromyalgia patients are prescribed opiate or opioid pain relievers when it turns out they’re suppressing the very thing that could give them true relief: oxytocin. While I think the “it’s all in your head” designation that many doctors give fibromyalgia patients is lazy, callous and not useful (it’s basically today’s answer to the “hysterical female” of yesteryear) there is something to be said about the apparent correlations between the condition and unhappiness. In a Swedish study done on female fibromyalgia patients, patients who identified as depressed and anxious had very low levels of oxytocin, whereas patients who identified as happy had much higher levels. When you consider all of the positive physical effects oxytocin has on the body, it’s not hard to see why unsatisfied people can begin to feel like crap.
And what a coincidence: You can increase oxytocin by eating comfort foods (chocolate mousse pie and ice cream come to mind). In fact, you can increase oxytocin through any kind of comforting sensory experience. It can be wrapping yourself in a fuzzy blanket fresh outta the dryer, receiving a hug, petting the dog, listening to relaxing music, watching a particularly lovely sunrise, or holding hands with your sweetie or a friend.
So let me speculate for a minute. If, as was reported at the 94th annual Endocrine Society meeting in Houston Texas, oxytocin “…reduced fat in the liver, improved glucose tolerance, and decreased abdominal fat, which is a major risk factor for heart and blood-vessel, or cardiovascular disease” is in fact true…and if comforting experiences like indulging in a hot fudge sundae for all the right reasons increases oxytocin…couldn’t it be possible that the pleasure of eating dessert could have a direct role in weight loss? Oxytocin has also been shown to reduce caloric intake overall without slowing the metabolism and reducing energy output- essentially, feeling happy is a real tool for achieving a healthy body weight that you can maintain.
Let me speculate further. Physical problems that can find their resolution in the increase or decrease of any hormone the body is able to produce on its own- whether that be low metabolism and thyroid hormone or anxiety and oxytocin- can usually be addressed to some degree by tweaking diet and lifestyle in a way that promotes the hormonal balance you’re aiming for. You know, we all basically have a pharmacy inside our skins. The key is figuring out how to get the head pharmacist in our noggins to pony up the good stuff.
I worked with a middle-aged waitress who suggested to me, while watching as I choked down a handful of about 47 different supplements, that how we feel mentally has as much of a role in our health as what we put in our bodies. I scoffed at the time because I was pretty sure she was trying to rationalize why her penchant for Marlboros was no big thing, but over time I’ve come to realize she’s right. Why not? Watch a horror movie and your adrenaline and cortisol go through the roof- those are both pharmaceutical grade drugs that you effectively gave yourself a massive dose of. Bury your face in your cat’s furry belly and bam: so long as she doesn’t get angry and break out the claws, you just gave yourself a hit of one of the most potent pain-relieving, anti-inflammatory, happiness promoting substances on god’s green earth. No, not cat fur. Oxytocin.
But hey, just like everything else, it’s gotta have a side effect. This piece in The Atlantic suggests oxytocin’s unpleasant downside might be…conformity. Eeek!