Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Our Old Pal Oxytocin

I skipped over this article in our local paper last night [aside: I can't find the actual link at OUR paper's homesight because, frankly, it sucks. I prefer to link to primary sources, but the LA Times wanted to charge a fee. Kudos to the South Bend Tribune for providing free access.] because, like 90% of our paper's content, it was pulled off the wire -- photo and all.

But today I saw it again on-line and noticed, toward the end, that there is a discussion of oxytocin's role in promoting friendship and quelling stress:

Increasingly, researchers think that the hormone oxytocin is, for women especially, the elixir of friendship -- and, by extension, of health.

Present in men and women, oxytocin levels spike in females following childbirth and when nursing. But oxytocin levels also increase at times of isolation and stress. And when the hormone interacts with estrogen, studies have shown, it impels females to seek the company of others. "We call it a 'social thermostat' that keeps track of how well (females') social supports are going," Taylor says.

"We don't see the same mechanisms in men," she adds.

By nudging women to build networks of support, oxytocin has a powerful indirect effect on their health. At least 22 studies have shown that having social support decreases the heart-racing, blood-pressure-boosting responses that humans and other social animals have to stress and the hormones it sends surging.

When oxytocin levels are high -- even as a result of injection -- reactions to stress are dampened. As a result, stress is less likely to do the kind of physiological damage that can lead to chronic diseases such as heart disease and metabolic disorders.

How convenient that the same hormone that floods our systems during birth and nursing also drives us to seek companionship. What better time to build your support network than when you have a new baby?


Blogger Linda said...

Hm. It seems odd to me that in one situation (birth) oxytocin levels decrease when under stress and in another they supposedly increase as a response to stress. Hm hm hm.

Isn't it more plausible that because oxytocin is released during supportive (non-stressful) interactions with people, that we then simply seek out those situations?

11:29 AM  

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