Oxytocin: The Peptide “Love” Hormone

Oxytocin was the very first peptide hormone to be biochemically described and synthesized. This simple nine–amino acid molecule has been called the “best understood neuropeptide” because of the extensive amount of research that has been done to investigate the many roles it plays in the body. An extensive review was published by the NIH National Center for Biotechnology information with the title, Is Oxytocin “Nature’s Medicine”? (Jurek and Neumann, 2018)

Since oxytocin is naturally occurring in the body it can be considered a component of “natural medicine” given the scientific evidence that it is helpful for both preventing and treating various health conditions. Oxytocin has been so thoroughly investigated over the years that a Pubmed search for the term “oxytocin” can produce 28,000 scientific articles, most of them published over the last twenty years. Among these articles are thousands of empirical studies and hundreds of recent reviews (Grinevich et al., 2016Carter, 2017Carter and Perkeybile, 2018Hurlemann and Grinevich, 2018Jurek and Neumann, 2018)

The list of conditions that oxytocin may be helpful for includes:

There is scientific evidence showing oxytocin favorably affects the immune system, and it is an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant substance. (Szeto et al., 2011Bordt et al., 2019Kingsbury and Bilbo, 2019).

Of particular importance to oxytocin’s capacity to influence behavior. Oxytocin deficiency has been linked to an increased risk of developing:

  • Autism
  • Depression 
  • Fibromyalgia

Oxytocin is considered the “love and bonding” hormone. It’s the hormone that is released during childbirth and when we look into the eyes of a newborn. It’s the peace and love hormone that is released with orgasm, laughter, play, and hugging. If we’re deficient in oxytocin, we won’t feel as good about ourselves or as connected to others. A lack of oxytocin in the amygdala of the brain (where social memory is stored) will produce anxiety and fear.

Oxytocin deficiency is promoted by:

  • Loneliness, lack of familial and social contacts
  • Fear
  • Drug abuse                                      

Stress, Cortisol and Oxytocin 

An excess of the hormone cortisol is produced under chronic stress. Oxytocin seems to balance this effect, reducing cortisol secretion as oxytocin levels improve. Cortisol, is a natural life-saving hormone produced immediately in times of danger requiring an immediate response making us aware of the danger and fleeing it if necessary. However, when produced under continued stress cortisol levels become chronically elevated damaging our health. Signs of high cortisol include fatigue, poor sleep which is unrefreshing (you wake up tired), weight gain (especially around the belly) sugar cravings, backaches and headaches, low libido, anxiety, and depression. Chronic high cortisol may lead to more rapidly aging, loneliness, depression, and adrenal fatigue. When chronic inflammation results that translates into rapid aging and a host of associated medical problems. Oxytocin and cortisol oppose each other. When one goes up, the other goes down. The key is to achieve a balance.

Chronic stress and PTSD trigger the cortisol-oxytocin disconnect. Oxytocin reduces:

  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Pain
  • Detachment
  • Bad social experiences
  • Anger

Maintaining Oxytocin Sufficiency

Oxytocin levels increase with food intake, caring touch, hugs, laughter, play, feeling gratitude, massage, viewing pictures of loved ones, music, singing, physical exercise, positive environments, positive social contacts, living with others and partner support, mothers love, romantic love.

Chronic or Traumatic Stress

Oxytocin is important when chronic stress and “stress-coping” mechanisms must be employed. Oxytocin can help with the  fear response which may contribute to emotionally shutting down as a form of passive  coping and protect against  “immobilization with fear” (Porges, 1998). Studies on both animal and human physiology  (Grewen and Light, 2011) show that antistress effects of social support may relax the sympathetic nervous system, allowing for functioning of the protective and restorative abilities of the vagal systems (Thompson et al., 2008Yee et al., 2016).

Social Support and Perceived Safety

The use of the oxytocin administration to accomplish behavioral effects of oxytocin may become a therapy for mental protective adaptations. The complexities of observing the effects of oxytocin on the brain-body connections, and responses of the immune and autonomic nervous systems may help to understand the negative health-related effects of the absence of social relationships and its negative consequences. (Carter, 2014).

Postpartum Depression

Because of its role in birth and lactation, oxytocin is a logical focus of study for the treatment of postpartum depression. (Carter and Altemus, 1997). Experimental evidence supports this hypothesis. (Gust et al., 2020). Lower levels of plasma oxytocin, both prenatal and postpartum, are associated with increased symptomatology. (Skrundz et al., 2011Stuebe et al., 2013Cox et al., 2015Garfield et al., 2015).

Studies of Mindfulness-Based Pain Management programs for chronic pain were done to find out about the effects on pain of stress, inflammatory markers, oxytocin levels, and psychological testing of mood and its connection to experiencing pain.


The results of these studies showed that chronic pain patients score significantly lower in various health and well-being parameters, while also having higher scores for depression and having poor pain tolerance. Psychological assessments after the 8-week mindfulness intervention demonstrated significant improvements in various aspects of pain perception, including decreased pain intensity. Additionally, patients exhibited decreased depression symptoms, and enhanced mindfulness traits. Oxytocin levels significantly increased in the chronic pain mindfulness intervention group, providing novel evidence that mindfulness-based practices can have an impact on oxytocin regulation. Also, measurement of inflammatory markers documented a decrease in the chronic pain patient group engaged in Mindfulness-Based Pain Management. 

This study seems to confirm that oxytocin can affect the experience of pain both by reducing stress and improving mood [56,119,120]. The reduction of stress could involve oxytocin’s direct benefits, since oxytocin is associated with lower stress levels measured during conflict [58], and social stress. The pain reduction observed in the chronic pain patient sample seems not to be solely related to stress reduction, but also due to some oxytocin-linked analgesia which works in other ways beyond those operating through stress reduction.  

Further studies are needed to expand our understanding of oxytocin in the management of chronic pain. The present study provides additional evidence of the beneficial psychological effects of mindfulness in chronic pain patients. Future studies are needed to explore the mechanisms responsible for the therapies’ benefits, likely to be due to a number of factors including oxytocin’s benefits, stress reduction, and psychological effects in chronic pain patients.


Author picture

Medically reviewed by Dr. Henry C. Sobo, M.D

Scroll to Top
Call Now