What is oxytocin and what functions does this hormone perform?

the oxytocin it is one of those substances that makes the fields of study of neuroscience and biology more interesting.

The reason is that oxytocin is closely linked with emotional bonds of all kinds, both those that are as strong as those experienced by loving and more diffuse couples, such as those that bind a person to their community of friends. and neighbors.

Oxytocin is therefore a small piece of body chemistry that allows us to scientifically explain sensations as intense and inexplicable as those that have to do with love. This is what drives a lot of people to try to figure out how it works to get a sense of the nature of what they feel when they see a certain person, when they hug or when they kiss. .

What is oxytocin?

But let’s start with the basics. What is oxytocin? It is basically a substance produced by our own body, specifically in a structure in the brain called the hypothalamus and other organs distributed by the body. As for its function, oxytocin is extremely versatile and can act as a hormone and as a neurotransmitter.

As a hormone, travels through the blood to reach different tissues and organs in the human body and make them react in a certain way, By following protocols designed for thousands of years of evolution and which have to do with how we best adapt to different situations.

As a neurotransmitter, oxytocin moves between the small spaces in which communication is established between neurons (the so-called synaptic spaces) and therefore it plays a role in the transmission of electrical signals throughout the nervous system, Including the brain.

Functions of this hormone

However, one of its most important practical functions has to do with love and affection. Oxytocin participates in this aspect of our life as a hormone and also as a neurotransmitter.

1. Linked to love

We often say oxytocin is the substance responsible for the existence of love. This is still a reductive and somewhat adventurous conclusion, given that there is not a single conception of what love is and, in any case, in the subjective experience of affection and with love, many other substances are involved. Oxytocin, like all neurotransmitters, never works on its own: it is always integrated into a biochemical puzzle that shapes our mind and our actions.

However, it is true that there are certain models in which one can see the relationship between oxytocin and this whole set of experiences and processes that have to do with love and affection.

For example, oxytocin levels rise when familiar faces need to be recognized. They also increase when looking into the eyes of loved ones, play a role in recalling members of one’s own group, and are usually separated in relatively large numbers in situations related to love and affection. When we experience the feeling of sharing an intimate relationship with another person and feel that we are in an environment of trust, more oxytocin is secreted, as explained in the article on The Chemistry of Love.

In fact, it has been seen that in people with chronic depression who receive an extra dose of oxytocin, they tend to pay more attention to happy faces than sad faces.

2. Regulator of births and maternity

Oxytocin is involved in other more varied processes. Etymologically, the word “oxytocin” means “rapid birth” in Greek. This is because, as a hormone, oxytocin plays a very important role in childbirth and, by extension, in breastfeeding, Two fundamental processes of motherhood, as evidenced by physiologist Henry Dale, who named this substance.

Specifically, oxytocin causes certain muscle fibers in the uterus to contract during childbirth, And is also responsible for contractions occurring before birth. Additionally, oxytocin has certain mechanical effects on the breasts, causing them to eject breast milk.

3. The role of this hormone in sexuality

During sex, blood levels of oxytocin tend to be significantly higher than normal. This reinforces the hypothesis that this hormone plays an important role in the chemical and mechanical processes involved in sexuality.

Oxytocin has been shown, for example, to be involved in the onset of vaginal contractions that facilitate sperm access to the egg. In men, it produces contractions of the prostate and seminal vesicles. In addition, in both men and women oxytocin blood levels peak during orgasm.

4. Create social bonds

As we have seen, oxytocin is strongly associated with bonding, And not just those related to motherhood.

It is not a coincidence. Being able to count on the help and support of other people is one of the great evolutionary advantages of our species, which is why it can be said that oxytocin is part of this social glue that has benefited us so much. If contact with a person leads us to secrete more oxytocin, in the long run we enter into a chemical and relational dynamic in which personal ties are very strong. In this way, the bond becomes very strong and persists over time.

Bibliographical references:

  • Delgado, JM (1998). Textbook of Neuroscience. Editorial summary.
  • Puelles, L. (2008). Neuroanatomy. Pan American Medical Editorial.

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