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Oxytocin is good for your game

Love should be the drug of choice for athletes, according to this somewhat tongue-in-cheek column By Stephen Moss in  The Guardian. In the third item, he asks a psychologist whether falling in love could have made tennis star Andy Murray a better player.

Falling in love jacks up levels of oxytocin, making you cuddlier and friendlier," he explained, "so on an gormless electro-chemical level a case could be made that it's bad for a sportsman. But falling in love could also liberate you from fear and produce the right balance between a desire to win and a desire to have fun. It could lead you to feel 'sod it, what does it matter?'

Romance, love and depression

Antidepressants may dull the fire of romance, according to the Wall Street Journal. Do they also blunt committed love?

I'm catching up with an article byTara Parker-Pope on February 13. It's behind a paywall, so if you don't subscribe, here's the precis:

Antidepressants work by increasing serotonin in the brain; serotonin keeps  mood, appetite, and sleep on an even keel. The intense state of romantic love, let's call it Love 1.0, is characterized by a decrease in serotonin and an increase in dopamine, another neurotransmitter with effects similar to amphetamines:  focused attention, obsession, loss of appetite, increased energy and sleeplessness -- all the things we feel when we are madly in love.

Pope writes that an April 2005 study (and there have been numerous such) showed that antidepressants not only increase levels of serotonin, the calming hormone, but also can reduve the availability of dopamine, the exciter.

She quotes Helen Fisher, author of Why We Love:

These drugs blunt emotions and reduce obsessive-compulsive thinking, but those are also two main characteristics of romantic love," Dr. Fisher says.

Pope goes on to say,

In addition to the obvious toll sexual side effects can take on a relationship, the lack of sex means key brain chemicals involved in love and long-term attachment aren't released. All of this can make it tough to fall in love and stay in love on an anti-depressant.

Regarding the "staying in love" part, let's call it Love 2.0, Pope is saying that if someone taking antidepressants doesn't want sex or can't have orgasms, he or she won't experience the release of oxytocin that comes with orgasm, and therefore won't feel bonded to his or her mate.

She doesn't quote any research for this assumption, and I haven't come across any. I wonder, though, whether the steady levels of oxytocin to be had when one lives intimately, sleeps next to, cuddles and hugs one's mate might not be plenty to maintain the bond of Love 2.0.

It might depend on the person -- and on the relationship. I guess couples can fall out of cuddling, just like they fall out of sex.

How I cuddled

The Cuddle Party was not only an opportunity for physical contact, but also a chance to practice being a person.

Suz, the leader, made it clear that our real goal should be to experiment and experience negotiating connections.

I will say, everyone seemed eminently cuddleable.

Not everyone was interested in serious cuddling, though; a few people were quite wary. This is okay and part of the process, Suz said. It’s about learning to set boundaries and say no as well as to be open. This is great practice, especially for women who’ve been taught to be compliant or to take care of others.

I found myself at first wanting to jump up and approach people who seemed to not have settled in, like a good hostess. I also wanted to make sure Mike was comfortable. Instead, I just lay there in the heap. And gee, everyone worked things out without my help.

I ended up being rather passive and letting people come to me. Cuddling felt good but, except for one intense encounter, not mind-blowing. I connected with people on a physical level, exchanging comforting animal warmth, without associating other emotions with it.

This represents, in my mind, a sign of my emotional growth and health. In my younger, touch- and connection-deprived days, any warm interaction would flood my body with inappropriate amounts of oxytocin, making me long for that person to be my true love or best friend. 

The oxytocin definitely was flowing for me at the cuddle party. In the last half hour, I felt extremely energized. Didn’t want to cuddle any more, I wanted to run around the block a few times.

Interestingly, all this cuddling with strangers made me feel more connected to Mike, my partner. I thought this was odd, but it makes sense when you consider how oxytocin forms bonds in monogamous species.

Oxytocin is released not only in cuddling but also -- especially -- during orgasm. In monogamous species, the reward center of the brain is loaded with oxytocin receptors. Oxytocin also enhances social memory, so the brain associates the intense pleasure of orgasm with the sex partner, making him or her truly a Significant Other.

Every time they touch, the bond deepens as permanent changes take place in the brain.

And I think it works both ways: My body associates oxytocin release with Mike, so any release reminds me of him. Nice!



Cud-dle! Cud-dle!

Mike and I are finally going to a Cuddle Party tomorrow. There are structured, pajama-clad snuggle sessions. Here was our conversation while cuddled up on Valentine's Day:

Him: I hope no men try to cuddle with me.

Me: You don't have to cuddle with anyone you don't want to.

Him: What if a man wants to cuddle with you?

Me: I'll decide when it happens.

Him: I don't want you to cuddle with another man.

Me: You don't get to decide that.

Him:  You're supposed to honor your agreements with your partner. (Gee, he read the FAQ!)

Me: We haven't made any agreements about the cuddle party.

Him: We have an agreement to be monogamous.

Me: I don't plan to have sex with anyone at the party.

Him: Cuddling is sex.


There is such a wealth of nuance and information about the differences between the sexes when it comes to love and sex, that I"m going to let this stand without comment.

The two-year love limit and the oxytocin deficit

I've been thinking more about the recent research showing how the madly-in-love neurochemicals dissipate within two years. Some news stories reported this as "love only lasts two years."

The truly-madly feeling is meant to be replaced by the truely-deeply part that comes with the recurrent bonding pulses of oxytocin.

Certainly our culture places undue emphasis on the burning, passionate, drug-addicted type of love. Pop songs are for tweens and teens who may cycle through their madlies in mere months, so of course, they’re not going to be about mellow, committed love.

But many of us bounce from love to love long beyond our teens; some of us bounce our whole lives. I believe that's not simply because we can’t recognize the biochemical sea change in love, but because we really don’t experience it.

For most of my life, I would experience these awful shifts from thinking someone was The One to waking up one morning, looking at him and thinking, who the hell are you? My passion hormones could be evoked by one date, but they ebbed as quickly as they flowed.

Oxytocin, the chemical scientists now believe responsible in both men and women for bonding with a mate, courses through our bodies constantly, helping to regulate water intake and the parasympathetic nervous system. But our bodies may release pulses of oxytovin in social situations where we feel intimately connected to another person. Those situations include being with friends, hugging, even stroking a pet.

Oxytocin may gush during sex and orgasm, exciting areas of the brain involved in social memory and reward. The brain then associates that sex partner with all good things, forming the bond we know as committed love.

However, the oxytocin response to another human being isn’t automatic. It's learned in the first months of life -- if we're lucky. Recent experiments with kids adopted from Romanian orphanages showed a stunted oxytocin response when they cuddled with their adoptive mothers.

I think that as a culture, we have a huge oxytocin deficit.

Those of us not raised by baby-sling toting moms and dads, those of us who spent a lot of time in baby daycare, those of us whose moms weren't so sure they wanted to be moms, may not have developed the oxytocin response. We're great at the obsessive part, but underneath the covers, we may not be developing the bond that should accompany sex and passion.

Baby massage

Jenn Gearey of the Ottawa Sun writes about a program teaching mothers how to massage their babies.

"Baby massage provides relaxation, relief and stimulation," says Jill Vyse, an Ottawa baby massage instructor since 1990.

Stroking and and massaging the baby seems like an excellent way to help the baby's body develop the oxytocin response. The baby learns what it feels like to be touched in a safe and secure situation and comes to understand on the somatic level what loving touch is.

I'd bet that babies who've been massaged will grow up to enjoy sex,  to easily fall in love with emotionally healthy people and to live contentedly with a mate.

I'm jealous of these babies!

which is the real love?

A new study by scientists at the University of Pisa measured the hormones in the blood of volunteers. Those newly in love showed high levels of nerve growth factor called neurotrophin. People who had been coupled for two years or so had normal levels of neurotrophin, but higher levels of oxytocin, the cuddle hormone.

Donatella Marazziti, who led the research team, said: "If lovers swear their feelings to be ever-lasting, the hormones tell a different story." has the best story, with comment from Dr. Petra Boynton of the British Psychological Society pointing out that committed love isn't a lesser state.

Dr Boynton said: "This feeds into a 1970s view that when you meet it's all sparky, and then it's a downward trajectory to cuddles - which is seen as a negative.

"It is suggesting that what happens first is the best bit - and that isn't true."