by Marnia Robinson and Gary Wilson
Researchers are always seeking answers to fundamental questions about illness: “What is the cause of cancer?” “How does stress damage your cells and organs?” “What causes plaque to build up inside your arteries?”
The flip side of such questions is “what is the mechanism by which love and affection positively affect health?” The answer to this question is oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone and neurotransmitter. Once believed to confine its effects to inducing labor and milk ejection, oxytocin actually has far-reaching effects on both sexes. You could not fall in love without it. These days it goes by nicknames such as “the bonding hormone,” “the cuddle hormone,” and even “the love hormone.”
The primary conscious behavior or thought process that increases oxytocin is caring for another. Appreciation, generous touch, gratitude, and emotional connections with others also raise oxytocin levels. In addition, oxytocin appears to be behind many of the health benefits from meditation, massage and acupuncture. We see one of oxytocin’s most powerful effects at birth–when the mother and father bond with their child. At that moment, oxytocin surges causing a rewiring of both parents’ brains so that they will do anything for their little screaming creature. Under ordinary circumstances they remain permanently in love.
We all form similar connections with friends, lovers, cats, gurus, or even God. And the benefits to us of these deep connections are great. Oxytocin is the reason why people with pets tend to recover more quickly from illness, why married people tend to live longer, why support groups benefit those with cancer, addictions and chronic disorders, and why care-giving primate parents, whether male or female, live longer than the non-care-giving parents.
How can oxytocin produce such tremendous health benefits? The exact mechanism is not clear, but the key seems to be oxytocin’s ability to counteract the effects of stress. To state this differently, if you listed all the conditions and diseases related to stress or aggravated by stress, you’d have to list nearly every known condition. By easing stress, oxytocin helps to heal them all.
In addition to oxytocin’s powerful effects on the body, it strongly affects your mind and behavior. It is nature’s antidepressant and anti-anxiety hormone. It creates feelings of calm and a sense of connection, so it actually shapes how you view the world. The whole universe looks like a better place when you feel tranquil and loving. Oxytocin also reduces cravings, which makes it the key to healing addictions of all kinds. For example, rats addicted to heroin used less of the drug when experimenters raised oxytocin levels in their brains.
Have you heard the saying, “the more you give, the more you get?” Well, it applies to oxytocin, too. The more you nurture and connect with others, the more responsive your body and brain become to it. This makes it an unusual neurotransmitter. Compare it with substances like alcohol or caffeine. The more you use them, the greater the quantity you require to attain the same effect. Oxytocin is the opposite. The more you give and nurture, the more strongly you respond.
You can’t take a pill to obtain these benefits because oxytocin would swiftly breakdown in your stomach. Not even an injection would work because the body gets rid of it so quickly. The only artificial way to keep oxytocin up would be to receive a continuous IV, and still that would have no effect on your brain.
Yet it is within your power to release oxytocin within your brain and body–short of having a child or an orgasm (see below). Consciously stick to behaviors that promote its production in areas of the body and brain that yield beneficial effects. Meditate, nurture others, reach out to connect with people, and make love in a way that keeps your heart open.
Because of oxytocin’s roles in bonding and reducing cravings, we believe it is the key to authentic monogamy and, of course, peace between the sheets. That is, if you want to stay in love, you need to sustain the production of oxytocin. This happens effortlessly…until some point after conventional sex enters the equation.
Here’s why. Falling in love calls forth a soup of neurochemicals, including oxytocin’s bonding effects. However, as we’ve explained in other articles, conventional sex tends to over-stimulate the pleasure/reward center deep within the brain. Over time, this leads to subconscious defensiveness and emotional distance between partners. Once uneasiness enters your intimate relationship, the bond between the two of you tends to weaken. That is, you produce less oxytocin. So you can see how biology’s agenda unravels your relationships over time despite oxytocin’s bonding properties.
The situation is confusing, even to scientists, because levels of oxytocin (at least in the bloodstream) rise sharply in most of us at the moment of orgasm. However, research suggests that this surge of oxytocin may have little to do with emotional bonding, and more to do with inducing the contractions associated with orgasm (to move the sperm along). Oxytocin, remember, also produces birth contractions. Even if there is a corresponding surge of oxytocin in the brain at the moment of orgasm, it is obvious that people can have sex without bonding. Some get up and leave; others roll over and snore.
The best plan? Consciously encourage oxytocin production with caring behavior. In this way you protect and strengthen the bonding connections in your brain and tap the health benefits discussed above.
Sadly, the normal relationship pattern is for couples to get together, think they will love each other forever, and then end up fighting and splitting up, or simmering in resentment and stagnation. This roller coaster of passion-followed-by-separation is behind the decline in oxytocin. The result? The honeymoon ends.
Our experience, making love without orgasm, has been just the reverse of this typical pattern. Our relationship stays light-hearted and romantic and has grown closer with time. We believe this positive trend is the result of consciously avoiding the behaviors that create subconscious uneasiness between partners. In this way we maintain our initial levels of oxytocin. And, as we’ve become increasingly responsive to “the Big ‘O’,” that is, oxytocin, our connection grows stronger and healthier. It will work for you, too!
Gary Wilson and Marnia Robinson are the husband/wife authors of “Peace Between the Sheets: Healing with Sexual Relationships.” To learn more about their work, visit www.reuniting.info. This article reprinted with permission.