Self-Worth, Respect and Oxytocin

Sure, there's a connection between how we're treated and our feelings of self-worth. Is there also an oxytocin connection?

Nekole Shapiro of EmbodiedBirth speaks to the connection between how a woman feels about herself sexually--  whether on a date or in the birthing room -- and the production of oxytocin. Learn why disrespecting a laboring woman hinders the birthing process. She finishes by taking us through an exercise that can help you feel more in touch with your own body.

This is Nekole's intro to @RickiLake's movie More Business of Being Born - The VBAC Dilemma at Birth Uncut in Reno NV Nov. 2011.

 


Dogs in Dorms an Antidote to Stress?

Research shows that dogs make us healthier and happier. Should college dorms allow them?Rebecca McGoldrick @BrownUniversity thinks universities should create policies that allow for dogs in dorms.

http://www.browndailyherald.com/rebecca-mcgoldrick-12-the-student-dog-relationship-1.2689736#.TyBKnGUsFzY

McGoldrick writes,

... a casual conversation with my peers leads me to believe that many of us lack our greatest companion for years while earning a college degree. And science is showing that this interspecies relationship has more health implications than we might imagine.

She suggests policies could allow students to bring dogs from home, or they could participate in a fostering program with the local shelter or animal rescue organization.

As someone who sneaked a puppy into her dorm spring semester of her sophomore year -- and switched schools rather than give up the dog -- I'm all for it.

 

 

 


Empathy Linked to Gene -- and We Can Tell

Variations in the genes for oxytocin receptors may influence empathy -- and we can tell who's got them in 20 seconds.

In the study, by Aleksandr Kogan of UC Berkeley, 24 couples provided DNA samples and then the couples recounted to each other a time when they had suffered. The conversations were videotaped.

Then, observers wached 20-second segments of the videos and were asked to rate each person as kind, trustworthy and compassionate. The observers tended to pick the people in the couples who hada variation in the oxytocin receptor gene known as the GG genotype.

It's interesting enough that empathy might be linked to variations in our genes. And also interesting that we humans are so exquisitely sensitive to social cues that we can easily and quickly pick this out.

PsychCentral has more on the study of oxytocin and empathy.

Here's the study:

SNP on OXTR Impacts Behavioral Prosociality Displays

See also Variations in Oxytocin Gene Influence Optimism

Romantic Chemistry May Be Genetic


Variations in Oxytocin Gene Influence Optimism

Shelley Taylor, the UCLA psychologist who identified the "tend and befriend" response, says the gene that produces the oxytocin receptor is responsible for influencing self-esteem, optimism and a sense of mastery.

This isn't so surprising, because oxytocin seems to produce most of the positive social emotions -- as well as some less positive ones.

According to the UCLA press office:

At a particular location, the oxytocin receptor gene has two versions: an "A" (adenine) variant and a "G" (guanine) variant. Several studies have suggested that people with at least one "A" variant have an increased sensitivity to stress, poorer social skills and worse mental health outcomes.
 
The researchers found that people who have either two "A" nucleotides or one "A" and one "G" at this specific location on the oxytocin receptor gene have substantially lower levels of optimism, self-esteem and mastery and significantly higher levels of depressive symptoms than people with two "G" nucleotides.
Taylor stressed that genetic variations do not "cause" depression or poor mental health. As I discussed in my book, there's direct scientific evidence from rodents and indirect evidence in humans that early nurturing -- and perhaps a baby's experience of labor and birth -- can influence the proliferation and sensitivity of oxytocin receptors.
Also, please don't forget that our brains can change throughout our lives through positive experiences.
Researchers have found that lower expression of the oxytocin receptor gene (in other words, fewer receptors) was linked to menstrual pain. And differences in expression of the OXTR gene may be linked to autism.

 


The Connection Continuum

3048731033_1f1fce7744_b You may think that the pleasure of sexual climax is miracle enough. But an orgasm is even more miraculous than that. It’s an essential element of the biological and spiritual mechanism that connects us to each other and to the universe.

Jerry M. Lewis, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School and author of “Reflections: On Relationships with Self and Others,” describes what he calls the Oneness Continuum. He says, “Starting with baseline reality, the continuum moves to aesthetic experiences (sunsets and symphonies) to romantic love. Next come numinous experiences (spiritual-religious), cosmic consciousness, and progressive trance states. The continuum ends with experiences of ‘absolute unity,’ which includes the obliteration of time and space.”

I like the idea of placing these experiences on a continuum, and I’d like to expand his idea to encompass even more. The experiences Dr. Lewis describes are states of connection with something outside ourselves. I call it the Connection Continuum, and I would include many more kinds of personal connection.

The Connection Continuum

In our culture, we place so much emphasis on romantic love that we forget about the myriad of other connections we make with each other. Even as we go about daily life, we can enjoy moments of connection with strangers, for example, when we exchange a smile with someone we’re passing in the street or say a kind word to the person who hands us our coffee.

Don’t ignore or dismiss these moments. Humans are social creatures who cannot thrive without contact with others. Each time we connect with someone else, it’s a gift of health and well-being, thanks to a chemical called oxytocin.

You may have heard of oxytocin’s role in mothering. It’s essential for giving birth and breastfeeding; and at the same time, it’s responsible for the love a mother feels for her baby. Or, you may have heard it be called the cuddle hormone. In fact, oxytocin seems to play an important role in every kind of positive human interaction.

At every place on the Connection Continuum, I believe, you’ll find oxytocin. Scientists have already identified its influence in money exchanges between strangers, at the lower end of the Connection Continuum.

The Real God Molecule?
It makes beautiful sense that our brains use the same chemistry for the connections at each end of the Connection Continuum, from the fleeting kindness of a stranger to the deep sense of dependence and love we may feel for our mothers. What’s more amazing is that we also use this chemistry for all the other kinds of connection—with lovers, friends, pets, people we do business with, even sports teams and actors. (Scientists haven’t confirmed that oxytocin is involved in these more abstract kinds of connection, but do these connections make as much sense to you as they do to me?)

At the Spirit or Oneness end of the Continuum, researchers have shown that people singing in a choir have elevated levels of oxytocin. Science probably won’t pursue oxytocin’s influence on religious experience, but I’m ready to nominate it as the true god molecule. I believe that oxytocin is the basis for the experience of merging not only with another person, but with Oneness, Spirit or God (as we know him or her).

There’s one real oxytocin hotspot on the Connection Continuum: orgasm. When our bodies go into orgasm, our brains release a flood of oxytocin into the bloodstream and into the brain. Oxytocin travels through the arteries to open the blood vessels, relax the smooth muscles, and create warmth and relaxation. At the same time, it sears the brain with recognition that this other person was the source of so much pleasure.

As humans evolved to be smarter and live longer, this sense of deep connection and bonding was essential for keeping a baby’s mother and father together so that they could keep their child safe and healthy. At the same time, the regular doses of oxytocin produced by the couple’s orgasms kept them healthier.

Orgasm and Connection
What if we reconsider orgasm itself? Instead of something that we need to get from someone else in order to feel good, what would change if we thought of orgasm as a miraculous method of connecting with another person—or even connecting with the universe?

I’d like to suggest that we enlarge our definition of orgasm to include any and every experience of oxytocin. Expanding this definition can expand our range of feeling, bringing more pleasure and fulfillment into everyday life. When we enhance our ability to connect this way—every day—we can live in union with each other and the universe.

This article originally appeared in Vision Magazine.

Photo by Mike Baird.


Maybe Love Can Cure Cancer!

New research shows that love (aka oxytocin) may be able to help cure cancer.

I tend to find anecdotes of people healing themselves through meditation, good thoughts, etc. as too woo-woo. But here is science finding that imbalances in peptide hormones can cause cancer - and that rebalancing these hormones can maybe cure it.

Chris Easton, PhD, and graduate student Lucy Ca, of The AustralianNational  University, are researching PAM, an enzyme that activates oxytocin and calcitonin, which promotes cell proliferation.

High levels of calcitonin are found in patients with small-cell lung cancer. They found that in cultures of this cancer, controlling PAM reduced levels of calcitonin.

The article begins, "Research into an enzyme that produces a hormone released after sex has inspired ANU chemists to create new treatments for small-cell lung cancer."

Unfortunately, the article doesn't make clear how oxytocin plays into this, if at all, and I'm not finding the study itself. My guess is that the key is in the balancing of peptide hormones. If both oxytocin and calcitonin are influenced by PAM, maybe more oxytocin leads to less calcitonin?

Chemistry experts out there, please weigh in!


Feel Bad? Phone Mom

But only if you love her...

Twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls who had phone calls with their mothers had an oxytocin response that counteracted stress.

The research, by Leslie Seltzer of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, included only girls who reported good relationships with their mothers. (For some people, talking on the phone to Mom is stressful in itself.)

Interestingly, instant messaging with mothers did not produce the oxytocin response in this study.

Earlier research by Seth Pollack, also of U of Wisconsin, found the same effect in girls seven to 12 years old.

If your relationship with your mother is rocky, you will likely get the same benefit by calling a good friend or other family member.

 


Oxytocin Part of Mother's Bravery

We know oxytocin creates the bond between mother and child. It also lets her overcome fear and defend her child.

When you're in danger, your heart rate speeds up. You sometimes freeze in fear. Researchers at the University of Lausanne found that separate brain circuits control these reactions. When oxytocin is high, for example, when a woman is breastfeeding, fear still makes the heart race but doesn't cause that deer in the headlights reaction. Note, the study was in rats.

"In a danger situation, you may want to maintain a fearful feeling but not be totally immobilized," said study researcher Ron Stoop, who researches psychiatric neuroscience at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. For example, if a predator attacks, a mother may need to fight to protect her offspring, he said.


Long-term Ecstasy Not So Great

New research shows that ecstasy, or MDMA, creates what may be permanent changes in the brain.

Ecstasy works in part by releasing oxytocin into the brain, producing those feelings of unity and connection. Over time, unfortunately, it seems to make the brain hyper-excitable, leading to less efficiency.

Ronald Cowan, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of Psychiatry at Vanderbilt University scanned the brains of subjects who had used ecstasy and those who had never tried MDMA.

They found increased brain activation in three brain areas associated with visual processing in Ecstasy users with the highest lifetime exposure to the drug. The findings were consistent with the investigators' predictions based on results from animal models: that Ecstasy use is associated with a loss of serotonin signaling, which leads to hyper-excitability (increased activation) in the brain.

The hyper-excitability suggests a loss in brain efficiency, Cowan said, "meaning that it takes more brain area to process information or perform a task."

It's not clear just what about the drug causes these effects, but it's worth noting not only for MDMA users but also for those wondering about dosing themselves with oxytocin.