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May 2006
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Oxytocin and the Testicles

More evidence of how essential oxytocin is to males, not only for their general health but also for their sexual functioning, comes from this article in Human Reproduction Update.

Researchers Hemlata Thackare, Helen Nicholson and Kate Whittington  write,

At ejaculation, a burst of OT [oxytocin] is released from the neurohypophysis into the systemic circulation and stimulates contractions of the reproductive tract aiding sperm release. 

So, men experience the same oxytocin pulse at orgasm that women do. 

The researchers add that there's conclusive evidence that oxytocin is synthesized in the testes of mammals,  and it plays a role in stimulating contractions of the seminiferous tubules (where sperm is produced), the epididymis (where sperm matures) and the prostate gland.

Because oxytocin affects  the growth of the  prostate directly and also by moderating the effects of androgens, they speculate that it may lead to new treatments for prostrate cancer.  

My Oxytocin Dose

Last Sunday, Mike and I tried our our own oxytocin dosing experiment.

My baseline mood: For the past week, I had been feeling cranky in general. I also had been dissatisfied with my relationship with Mike. Some of those issues were situational: For several months, he has had band practice or a meeting scheduled every week night, and he's been staying in the TV room late at night. He hasn’t joined me on hikes or bike rides lately. There are also the typical living-together annoyances: not putting dirty dishes in the dish washer, leaving newspapers all over the dining room table, not helping take care of the dog.

I realize that how I react to these annoyances depends on my general mood. Sometimes I can just shrug, other times I feel intensely annoyed, even though the situation hasn't changed. As I said, I've felt cranky lately.

We did our experiment in Sunday afternoon.

I chose an anti-snore inhaler because it was cheap and had a screw top. I poured out the contents and rinsed the bottle with distilled water. I was very casual about mixing: I simply filled the little plastic oxytocin vial with water, shook it and emptied it into the inhaler, then refilled the vial with water and repeated to make sure I got every possible molecule out. (The dose for the two of us cost me $87!)

We alternated taking an inhale in each nostril, passing the inhaler back and forth about six times.

After the first two inhalations, I felt a fairly intense flush that started in my sinuses and extended out to the sides of my face. My lips felt thick and, at first, I felt slowed down, moving through syrup. I felt, in other words, stoned -- but stoned in a way that grass seldom makes me feel. (I don't smoke weed, because it usually makes me feel anxious; my mind races and I lose my belief that I know and understand the people around me.)

After the first druggy feeling passed, in about five minutes, I felt very calmed down. I looked at Mike and thought of the things I was mad about, but I couldn’t get in touch with that angry feeling.

Neither did I feel any intense, oceanic bonding with him. But I was very aware of and attracted to the smell and touch of his skin. I always love the way he smells, but it was now delicious to kiss and sniff and lick his ears and neck and shoulders and chest. He even let me suck on his nipples, something that's usually too intense for him. Mike is a good cuddler in general, but not especially interested in my breasts or full-body licking and sucking; none of this changed with the oxytocin.

We looked at each other with smarmy smiles, a little giggly. We didn’t sink into intense talking or gazing.

In ten minutes, the stony effects began to dissipate for me. I still felt very calmed down and interested in Mike's skin. Our lovemaking seemed within then bounds of the usual for us. It was nice but not ecstatic or spiritual.

For the rest of the afternoon and evening, I experienced Mike as being nicer and more responsive to me. He said it was because I was being more open, which certainly could be true. It's difficult to know where the physical effect of oxytocin ends and the effects of our intention to focus on each other and have a good experience begins. Of course, behaving sweetly and focusing on the other person can create endogenous oxytocin.

Our experience mirrors the general understanding of how women differ from men. We're more emotional, more vulnerable, feel more bonded after sex. Estrogen increases the effects of oxytocin, while testosterone mutes them and causes them to dissipate sooner, so women feel all oxytocin's effects more strongly.

I felt the initial effects of oxytocin quite intensely, both physically and emotionally. I did not feel vulnerable, because I trust Mike, but I did feel open. These effects are not something that I would want to experience while at a party or while making some anxious social transaction like calling an editor or making a date.

Mike didn’t feel either the physical or emotional effects as much, he said. Again, some of this difference could be the result of his level of self-analysis and disclosure, or the fact that he has chronic sinusitis and one nostril has been cauterized, so he might absorb less. There were some moments when he acted shy, the way he did when we first met.

By Monday, I was all the way back into my cranky mood.

I hope more women experiment, and people do different kinds of experiments. For example, I wonder how I would have felt if I dosed alone. Would I have run out of the house madly looking for a puppy?

If you've tried it, please let me know what happened.

Oxytocin Dosing Today!

With all props to Alcibiades of Chemgasm, the pioneer and fearless leader in self-experimentation, I'm going to try oxytocin today.

For more than a month, I've had the little vial containing 5 milligrams of oxytocin crystals sitting in the freezer. First, we went on vacation. Then, my partner Mike wasn't so enthusiastic about snorting some random chemical I'd bought online. (He is not a reader of my blog, can you believe it?)

Luckily, the latest study by Beate Ditzen pushed him over the edge of agreement.

Here's my plan:

I want to experience the feeling of connection supposedly created by the release of oxytocin. I do have a deep bond with Mike that is independent of what happens day-to-day. Yet I have been feeling less close to him lately; we're both independent people, and maybe our lives are becoming too divergent. So, I think my connection baseline is low right now.

We've agreed to devote the afternoon to "quality time" with each other. What I envision is, we'll hang out on the couch or in bed, talk a little, and then snort the oxytocin. We'll split the 5 mg between us.

I expect that we'll make love afterwards. I am wondering whether the oxytocin might diminish MIke's sex drive and focus his body on cuddling instead. We'll see!

Oxytocin Keeps the Lid on Spats

... even though couples may not feel its effects, according to a new study.

Oxytocin keeps a lid on marital spats, letting couples work out problems without getting enraged. In a double-blind study at Emory University, 50 couples were given either an oxytocin nasal spray or a placebo spray, and then asked to revisit a sore point in the relationship.

Their mock arguments were videotaped, and researchers measured the heart rate and the level of cortisol, the stress hormone, in the couples' saliva. Cortisol levels were significantly lower in the oxytocin group.

Interestingly, people in the oxytocin group didn't feel any less stressed than the control group. After arguing for ten minutes, everyone rated their own stress levels, and both groups felt about the same amount of tension.

But psychologists who scored the couples' interactions based on body language, verbal expression and tone of voice said the oxytocin group handled the interaction better: They were able to verbalize both negative and positive feelings better, and they opened up more than the other group.

Being able to handle conflict without tweaking makes it easier to collaborate with your mate, and it also has long-term health benefits.

See these news stories for more:

Nose spray lowers stress during spats
Scotsman - United Kingdom

'Hormone of Love' Nasal Spray Reduces Stress in Martial Spats ... - San Antonio,TX,USA

Spray Away That Marital Stress, Researcher Suggests
Forbes - USA

The Daddy Brain

Science Central reports on research by Kelly Lambert of Randolph Macon College.

New findings by brain researcher Kelly Lambert, professor and chair of the psychology department at Randolph-Macon College, suggest that fatherhood may change more than just a man's lifestyle – it may actually cause lasting benefits in his brain.

Instead of prairie voles,Lambert used two species of  deer mice for her study.  Like the prairie and montain voles, one species is monogamous, the other is not. Although the males of the non-monogamous common deermouse don't engage in nurturing behavior with pups, their brains responded to proximity with a baby mouse by releasing oxytocin and vasopressin.

Lambert says this shows there are health benefits for fathers who help with childcare.

Thanks to A.E. Brain for the link to the article.

Orgasms Good or Bad for Marriage?

I'm still intrigued about Marnia Robinson's theories about the neurochemistry of marriage. After reading more on her blog, Reuniting, however, I'm not sure I buy her basic premise.

Robinson advocates that couples should make love without orgasm for a period in order to break a cycle of neurochemical peaks and valleys. She says hot sex produces dopamine rushes followed by a sense of depletion as dopamine levels return to normal. At the same time, a normal rise in the level of prolactin turns the attention away from sex. 

Robinson says that this feeling of depletion can be projected onto the sex partner and experienced as the desire to withdraw and find a new partner.

... dopamine drives you to have sex over most other activities. With dopamine as the driving force, biology has designed you to engage in fertilization behavior to make more babies, and urges you to move on to new partners to create greater genetic variety among your offspring. Your primitive brain accomplishes these goals of more progeny and promiscuity by manipulating your brain chemistry, and thus your desires and thoughts. High levels of dopamine increase sexual desire, encouraging you to behave recklessly.

However, humans are among the estimated 3 percent of mammals whose brains are hard-wired for monogamy. Unlike most mammals, our reward centers are also rich in oxytocin receptors. When we make love, and especially when we orgasm, the release of oxytocin stimulates the reward center to not only associate sex with pleasure, but also to associate that specific other with the source of that pleasure, creating the bond we call "true love."

High levels of oxytocin along with that addictive dopamine associated with sex cause us to behave monogamously.

There seems to be another flaw in Robinson's argument: She says couples should focus their lovemaking on activities that increase oxytocin levels, rather than those that increase dopamine levels; therefore, no orgasms. But orgasm itself floods the body with oxytocin.

I think the idea of working to understand and improve relationships on the neurochemical level is brilliant, and I have no doubt Robinson's system can improve lovers' union. But I think her explanations of the science behind her ideas is off.

"Peace Between the Sheets"

... is the title of a book by Marnia Robinson. She uses an understanding of neurochemistry to explain how and why romantic love doesn't seem to last. Her book prescribes three weeks of activities  to help couples change the chemical dynamics of their relationship.

In her blog, Reuniting, she talks about the "Coolidge Effect": A male rat will copulate madly with a receptive female, but then tire. Yet, if a new female is introduced, his vigor returns.

Her basic premise is that people should learn to make love differently, with an emphasis on activities that produce lots of oxytocin, rather than overstimulating the reward/pleasure centers of the brain.

This interview between Robinson and reviewer Rebecca Brown of Rebecca's Reads gives some of Robinson's ideas, for example,

I guess we figured the boys were really on to something with the “frequent-orgasm program” so often attributed to them. But by imitating them, we've simply been repeating their fundamental error of believing the point of having genitals was orgasm, rather than union. Over-stimulation of the pleasure/reward center doesn't bring out the best in men or women; it leads to separation.

Yoga Increases Oxytocin Levels

According to Kimberly Garrison of Girlfriends Locker Room. Garrison doesn't cite any references for this statement.

But the International Association of Yoga therapists refers to the paper “Promotive, Prophylactic Benefits         of Yogic Practice in Middle Aged Women” by Malathi First.

It certainly seems likely - and interesting that this ancient discipline is connecting with neuroscience.