If you suffer from insomnia, you’ve likely heard of melatonin, the chemical most commonly associated with falling asleep. But many hormones and neurotransmitters in our brains impact our sleep-wake cycles and whether we can fall and stay asleep.
One of these is oxytocin. Below, we explore what exactly oxytocin is, its many effects, and how it relates to sleep.
What Is Oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a hormone and neurotransmitter often referred to as the “love hormone” or “cuddle hormone.” It is well known for its impacts on childbirth and for the warm fuzzy feelings we get with romantic partners.
How Does Oxytocin Work?
The hypothalamus—a small region at the base of the brain—produces oxytocin. Oxytocin is both a neurotransmitter and a hormone. As a neurotransmitter, it impacts the brain, and as a hormone, it impacts various systems as it travels throughout the body.
Inside of the brain, oxytocin binds to receptors in the amygdala, a brain region involved in stress, social behavior, and emotional processing. By binding to receptors there and in the hypothalamus, oxytocin triggers the release of the feel-good chemicals dopamine and serotonin.
As a hormone, oxytocin stimulates contractions during childbirth, promotes lactation, and can lower blood pressure.
How Long Does Oxytocin Last?
If you experience a quick release of oxytocin, its half-life is three-to-five minutes. However, because oxytocin causes various series of physiological responses, its effects can last much longer.
Additionally, when your body releases oxytocin, it has a compounding effect. Let’s say, for instance, you’re cuddling with your partner, and your body releases oxytocin. Oxytocin’s psychological impacts will make you want to cuddle with your partner even more, therefore releasing more oxytocin. So in many cases, oxytocin levels remain elevated for quite a while.
Oxytocin has a wide range of benefits, from helping promote labor and lactation to improving social bonds. Some of the many wonderful things oxytocin does include:
- Increases empathy
- Promotes calm feelings
- Decreases the secretion of cortisol, the stress hormone
- Promotes social bonding
- Improves sleep
- Stimulates uterine contractions during labor
- Increases feelings of sexual satisfaction
- Helps mothers to lactate and bond with their babies
- Decreases addictive cravings and behaviors
- Promotes pain relief
- Improves cardiovascular health
Oxytocin Side Effects: For Women and For Men
Oxytocin acts somewhat differently in men and women, though many of the effects are the same, such as increased empathy and improved sleep.
In women, oxytocin plays a crucial role in helping along the processes of giving birth, nursing, and bonding with a new baby. In some cases, laboring mothers receive oxytocin to speed up delivery and decrease bleeding.
Oxytocin also plays a unique role in men’s fertility. It helps to move sperm forward during ejaculation, serving an essential function in reproduction.
Does Oxytocin Make You Tired?
There are many neurotransmitters and hormones that contribute to feelings of tiredness. If it were as simple as one neurotransmitter making you sleepy, scientists would have cured insomnia long ago.
That said, studies have shown that oxytocin helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle under stress-free conditions. In the presence of stress, however, it can promote vigilance. So, falling and staying asleep isn’t as simple as increasing your production of oxytocin.
How Does Oxytocin Compare to Other Hormones?
Oxytocin vs Dopamine
Oxytocin and dopamine are two members of a class of neurotransmitters often referred to as “happy hormones.” This includes oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins.
While both oxytocin and dopamine play a role in happiness, there are key differences as outlined in the following table.
Promotes social bonding
Supports feelings of motivation and accomplishment
Helps to reduce stress
Regulates stress responses
Impacts the activity of dopamine
Is impacted by oxytocin
Oxytocin vs Serotonin
Another of our “happy hormones,” serotonin is a neurotransmitter that, like oxytocin, regulates stress and mood. Some of the differences between oxytocin and serotonin include the following:
More specifically involved with social bonding
Broadly involved with regulating mood, sleep, and appetite
Oxytocin release generally occurs following positive physical touch, social interaction, or during mother-child bonding or labor
Certain foods, medications, and exercise trigger the release of serotonin
Impacts the release of serotonin
Is impacted by oxytocin
Oxytocin vs Cortisol
Oxytocin and cortisol have nearly opposite effects on the body. While oxytocin is known as the cuddle hormone, cortisol is part of the body’s stress response.
Cortisol can have several adverse effects on the body if it stays too high for too long, including:
- Immune system suppression
- Abnormal weight gain
- Metabolic dysfunction
- Increased risk of cardiovascular problems
- Decreased bone density
- Brain fog
According to Penn Medicine, affection boosts oxytocin production while decreasing cortisol secretion. Increasing the body’s oxytocin levels decreases cortisol production, which can help you regain homeostasis and improve immune system strength.
Is Oxytocin Addictive?
Oxytocin is not addictive. In fact, it is currently being researched for its potential to reduce drug-seeking behaviors in people with addiction.
Of course, because oxytocin release makes us feel good, some people may find that they seek out things that lead to increased levels of oxytocin. Unfortunately, this can lead to problems like overeating and sex addiction.
One quick note — people often confuse oxytocin and OxyContin because they sound similar. OxyContin is a narcotic pain reliever that is addictive and should only be used under careful medical supervision. It is not related to oxytocin.
How to Increase Oxytocin Levels Naturally
Increase Your Vitamin Intake
Your body needs various vitamins and minerals to produce any hormone or neurotransmitter. For oxytocin production and functioning, the most essential vitamins to ensure you get enough of are vitamin C, vitamin D, and magnesium.
Spend More Time with Loved Ones
Social bonding is one of the many important roles oxytocin plays. Because we release oxytocin during desired social contact, this is an easy way to increase oxytocin levels. This is especially true if your social interaction includes some physical touch, such as hugging or shaking hands.
Snuggle With Your Pets
Just like human touch, petting a dog or cat tells our brains that it’s time for social bonding and, therefore, oxytocin release. So if you’re looking for a boost in this happy hormone, consider heading to your local rescue and adopting a new family member.
Given oxytocin’s intricate relationship with sex, having sex is a clear-cut way to increase oxytocin release. It is released both after orgasm in both men and women, as well as during physical contact.
Check out our blog post on the Best Mattress for Sex to get one step closer to that oxytocin release.
Share Your Bed with Your Partner
While sex is one way to boost oxytocin, just sleeping in bed with your partner is also a great option. Any sort of close physical contact, including cuddling, triggers your hypothalamus to produce oxytocin.
And to enjoy the oxytocin boost while getting a good night’s rest, consider one of the beds that made our list of the Best Mattresses for Couples.
Watch a Feel-Good Movie
You don’t even have to hang out with other people to increase oxytocin levels if that’s not your cup of tea. Researchers from Claremont Graduate University discovered that watching a movie with a compelling narrative triggers the release of oxytocin.
Listen to Music
No matter what type of music you prefer, jamming out to your favorite tunes causes a release of oxytocin. If you want to increase this effect, sing along, dance around, or go with friends to a concert or other musical event.
Get a Massage
There are myriad health benefits to getting a massage, and increasing oxytocin levels is one of them. As an added bonus, massage also reduces stress hormones.
Perhaps the easiest way to increase oxytocin levels is eating. Food intake causes oxytocin release, and you can build upon this by eating a favorite meal and sharing it with loved ones. But, of course, it’s unwise and impractical to eat nonstop, so this shouldn’t be your only go-to for oxytocin production.
Can you overdose on oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a naturally occurring chemical that your brain makes, and you will not overdose on it unless you take an outside source. Unfortunately, because the supplement industry is unregulated and methods for supplementing oxytocin are poorly understood, you can overdose on synthetic oxytocin and should be very careful if you use it.
Does oxytocin induce labor?
Oxytocin plays a major role in childbirth, and many healthcare providers use it to induce labor in expectant mothers when necessary.
Is oxytocin an endorphin?
Oxytocin is not an endorphin. Endorphins are naturally occurring pain relievers that the body produces. They are known for reducing pain perception and causing feelings of euphoria.
Can you take oxytocin supplements?
Technically, yes, you can take oxytocin supplements. They are available in oral form, intranasal spray, and injections. However, these are not regulated, and it is possible that taking them can interfere with your body’s natural production of oxytocin. Consult a trusted healthcare provider if you intend to take oxytocin supplements to ensure you do so safely.
Is too much oxytocin bad for you?
While it is rare for the body to produce too much oxytocin naturally, taking too much synthetic oxytocin can lead to unpleasant side effects and even overdose.