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Oxytocin

  1. What is oxytocin?
  2. Function
  3. Supplements
  4. FAQs

What is oxytocin?

Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the hypothalamus, a small, central part of the brain that functions as a gland, and released into the bloodstream by the posterior pituitary gland, a pea-sized gland located at the base of the brain that plays an important role in regulating the body and general wellbeing.[1]

Oxytocin acts as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter. It has a range of biological and cognitive functions and is believed to play a role in pregnancy, childbirth, sexual activity, maternal bonding, social bonding and stress. Its various prosocial functions have led to oxytocin being dubbed the love or cuddle hormone.[2]

Oxytocin is produced naturally by the body, usually upon physical contact with others. Supplements of the hormone are available, though they may lead to side-effects.

How is oxytocin produced and controlled?

Oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus portion of the brain and is controlled by a positive feedback mechanism. The production of oxytocin is caused by a trigger or action which then stimulates further production. For example, contractions during childbirth trigger oxytocin production, which in turn triggers more contractions, which again triggers further production of oxytocin. This process is usually self-limiting, meaning it halts when the trigger or action ceases.[3]

If you think that you or a loved one may be experincning orpblems related to hormone production, you can get a free symotom assessment at any time by downloading the Ada app.

What is the function of oxytocin?

The functions of oxytocin are thought to be multifaceted, playing a role in physical, emotional and behavioral processes of the body.

Biological function

Oxytocin helps to regulate two of the reproductive functions of the female body: childbirth and breastfeeding.

Oxytocin plays a role in cervical dilation before birth and helps stimulate contractions during labor. Production of the hormone is triggered by the widening of the cervix; oxytocin then stimulates the uterine muscles to contract and encourages the production of prostaglandins, which further stimulates contractions.[4]

During breastfeeding, oxytocin helps with the movement of milk from the mammary glands, where it is produced, to a collecting chamber, from where it can be accessed by an infant.

In men, oxytocin is thought to play a role in the movement of sperm and in the production of the hormone testosterone. Research also suggests that oxytocin plays a role in male erection and in the intensity of orgasms for both sexes. Oxytocin is known to be released during sex, childbirth and lactation, playing an important role in physical reproductive functions.

Emotional and behavioral functions

Oxytocin was first identified for the function it performs during childbirth and breastfeeding, but clinical research indicates that it also has an effect on emotions, bonding and social relationships.[5]

As well as stimulating contractions during childbirth, oxytocin is also thought to be important in the formation of a mutual bond between mother and child. Interactions between mother and child are believed to lead to the production of the hormone, which then sets off the positive feedback loop for further production, creating the unique relationship between a mother and her newborn child, known as the maternal bond.[6] This same process may also be a factor in the creation of a paternal bond.

Read more about Pregnancy »

Oxytocin may also help to regulate the female response to giving birth, reducing feelings or memories of stress or physical trauma and promoting feelings of positivity and happiness.[7] Immediately after giving birth, there is an oxytocin peak which is connected to these feelings, as well as those of bonding towards the baby.

Research suggests that oxytocin also facilitates the formation of social bonds - in friendships, families, organizations and particularly between sexual partners. The hormone is released during physical contact, including during sex, as well as hugging or holding hands, working to boost the attraction between partners.[8] Oxytocin, therefore, is believed to be a key factor behind romantic attachment and monogamous relationships. Higher levels of oxytocin have also been observed to be present in the early stages of a romantic relationship.[9]

It has also been suggested that oxytocin acts to promote trust between individuals, as well as to reduce fear, social anxiety and boost positivity and self-esteem.[10][10]

Low oxytocin levels have been linked to autism and autism spectrum disorders, conditions in which decreased social interactions are often seen.[11] This has led to the idea that oxytocin could be effective in treating acute shyness and severe social anxiety. Clinical trials have found that oxytocin may be able to help people with autism to cope more easily in social situations. Studies have also found that oxytocin can increase altruism and generosity, decrease severe anxiety and promote other behaviors that benefit social interaction.[12][^18[13] However, oxytocin has also been linked to increases in negative emotions such as anger and envy. Further research is needed.[14]

Read more about Autism » Read more about Signs of Autism »

Oxytocin supplements

Oxytocin supplements, often called Pitocin, are regularly used during childbirth to induce labor or to ease post-natal bleeding. In this context, it is usually administered through injection or intravenously by a doctor.

Inform a doctor if any of the following side-effects occur:[15]

  • Redness or irritation around the injection
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Memory problems
  • Cramping or stomach pain
  • Runny nose
  • Sinus pain

Oxytocin nasal spray

Oxytocin is also available as a nasal spray, a method which allows the hormone to enter the bloodstream easily. Oxytocin nasal sprays are available without prescription, though it is advisable to seek a medical opinion before using such products.

Oxytocin FAQs

Q: What is the relationship between oxytocin and food?
A: The relationship between oxytocin and food is not totally clear, but research suggests that the hormone may be able to suppress appetite and curb binge eating by regulating personality and biological traits that lead to such behaviors.[16]

Q: What is the relationship between oxytocin, sex and love?
A: Oxytocin has been nicknamed the love hormone due the role it is thought to play in romantic bonding. Production of the hormone is triggered by physical contact, something that is thought to strengthen relationships between romantic partners. Higher levels of oxytocin have also been observed in individuals in the early stages of a relationship.[17]


  1. LiveScience. “Oxytocin: Facts About the ‘Cuddle Hormone’.” June 4, 2015. Accessed: 30 August 2017.

  2. Psych Central. “About Oxytocin.” Accessed August 30, 2017.

  3. Lumen Learning. "The Pituitary Gland and Hypothalamus." Accessed: 08 November 2018.

  4. Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism. "Endocrinology of parturition." 2013. Accessed: 09 November 2018.

  5. Psychological Science. "Oxytocin and Social Bonds: The Role of Oxytocin in Perceptions of Romantic Partners’ Bonding Behavior." 2017. Accessed: 09 November 2018.

  6. NCBI. “Oxytocin and and mutual communication in mother-infant bonding.” February 28, 2012. Accessed August 30, 2017.

  7. Smart Publications. “Oxytocin - The Real Love Hormone.” Accessed August 30, 2017.

  8. Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism. "The orgasmic history of oxytocin: Love, lust, and labor." September 2011. Accessed: 09 November 2018.

  9. NCBI. “Oxytocin during the initial stages of romantic attachment: Relations to couples’ interactive reciprocity.” January 26, 2012. Accessed August 30, 2017.

  10. NHS. "'Cuddle hormone' oxytocin may play role in fear.". 24 July 2014. Accessed: 09 November 2018.

  11. Psychiatry Investigation. “Plasma Oxytocin in Children with Autism and Its Correlations with Behavioral Parameters in Children and Parents.” March 23, 2016. Accessed February 27, 2018.

  12. Nature. “The Effect of Oxytocin on Third-Party Altruistic Decisions in Unfair Situations: An fMRI Study.” February 2, 2016. Accessed February 27, 2018.

  13. PLOS One. “Oxytocin Increases Generosity in Humans.” November 7, 2007. Accessed February 27, 2018.

  14. Association for Psychological Science. “The Dark Side of Oxytocin.” July 29, 2011. Accessed August 30, 2017.

  15. RxList. “Pitocin.” June 10, 2016. Accessed August 31, 2017.

  16. SSIB. “A joint study by Canada’s York University and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health examines oxytocin’s role in binge eating.” June 12, 2016. Accessed August 31, 2017.

  17. NCBI. “Oxytocin during the initial stages of romantic attachment: Relations to couples’ interactive reciprocity.” January 26, 2012. Accessed August 30, 2017.