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Oxytocin:
World’s expert talks about this calming hormone

An Interview with Kerstin Uväs-Moberg, M.D., Ph. D

If you suffer from stress, high blood pressure, elevated cortisol in the blood, or other stress-related symptoms, you will be interested in oxytocin—a hormone which Dr. Kerstin Uväs-Moberg calls the calm and connection hormone.

How can you bring greater calm and connection into your life and the life of your children?

Kerstin Uväs-Moberg, M.D., Ph. D, author of The Oxytocin Factor, is a recognized world authority on oxytocin.  Her research took place at the famed Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala, where she is Professor of Physiology.  Influential in obstetrics, psychology, pediatrics, child development, physical therapy and other fields, Dr. Uväs-Moberg has authored over four hundred scientific papers and lectures widely in Europe and the USA.

1. In your book, you state, “There are many scientific conferences on the topics of stress and pain, but very few conferences deal with calm, rest, and wellbeing.”  What does oxytocin have to do with calm, rest, and wellbeing?

Dr. Uväs-Moberg: Oxytocin, which was first noticed during birth labor and in nursing
mothers in 1906, acts as both a hormone and a neuropeptide.  It triggers a complex series of reactions that enhance your body’s relaxation and calmness. This is important in two ways.  The first (1) is the immediate health benefit of lowering stress-related symptoms and the second (2) is that repeated dosages of oxytocin seem to convert the immediate benefit into a long-lasting effect.  In our studies, animals who received as little as one dose per day for 5 days needed little additional oxytocin to stay calm for up to 3 weeks.  This suggests that oxytocin can offer stressed human beings a way to open up new pathways, to help them relax and restore calm immediately and across long term situations.  I stress oxytocin’s ability to grow or develop people’s relaxation and restoration capacity.

2. What is the relationship between oxytocin and adrenaline or other fight/flight responses?

Dr. Uväs-Moberg: The body is intelligent.  Oxytocin does have the reverse effects to flight or fight hormones, but the body doesn’t call on oxytocin in every situation.  Sometimes we are threatened or in danger and we must respond to our flight or fight hormones to protect ourselves.  However, oxytocin may even be able to serve us in potentially threatening situations.  For example, if we can stay calm in a tense situation, we may know enough to move away from danger. We can learn to avoid a fight and respond differently.

3. What does oxytocin actually do?

Dr. Uväs-Moberg: Oxytocin does two important things:  (1) lowers blood pressure and other stress-related responses, and (2) increases positive social behaviors, such as friendliness and desire to connect.  Oxytocin impacts the body in two ways.  The first is that it is a hormone released from the blood stream as it circulates in the body.  And, it is also released by the nerve centers inside the brain.  This means that it capable of having a direct impact because it is not only a blood born hormone. 

Today, in my opinion, our relaxation responses are under-developed and we are much more stressed than we have been historically.  Therefore, everything that we can do to enhance our levels of oxytocin increases our options for wellbeing.  The results of an interesting longitudinal study between mothers and children demonstrate that real contact (eye contact and direct conversation) between mothers and children has been reduced by half. Mothers and their children are spending time in the same room, but only about half that time is spent in real contact.  Our stress may be passed on to the children in this way.

4. Are there ways that people can increase their oxytocin levels in daily life?

Dr. Uväs-Moberg: Although some are thinking about developing oxytocin drugs, I believe the absolute best thing to do is to activate your own oxytocin.  Your body knows how to handle that oxytocin.  There are several things that anyone can do:

  • Touch is very important.  Interactive touch with human beings is best, but it doesn’t have to be limited to human beings.  Touch happens between people and their pets. 
  • Getting massage is helpful.
  • Walking, swimming in warm water, and all physical exercise is excellent.
  • Deep interaction, intimacy, and eye-contact are also important.
  • Sex releases oxytocin.

Safety is important.  For example, nursing mothers exhibit behavior associated with oxytocin when they are in a calming, familiar room.  If you move them to an unknown and more stressful environment, their safety levels fall and so do their oxytocin behaviors.  Therefore, in the latter case, their capacity to bond with their babies is reduced. In another example, studies have shown that small groups, 6 – 10 people, seem to have a positive impact on cardiovascular and cancer patience.  This may be because oxytocin is released in the safety of these settings.  Perhaps we need to make sure our family settings include levels of intimacy rather than just spending time in the same house.  Maybe our economic success, which affords us the ability to sleep in separate rooms and/or beds, has actually deprived us of the touch necessary for future success in calmness, connection, and intimacy.  When people had less money, children had to sleep together in the same beds or listen to night time stories rather than play individual computer games.  Societies at that time had built in bonding and companionship mechanisms.  We need ways to restore these to our children.

5. Oxytocin is often thought of as a female hormone.  Do men have oxytocin and, if so, how does it operate in their lives?

Dr. Uväs-Moberg: Both men and women have oxytocin and in almost the same amount.  Pregnancy, labor, and nursing activate oxytocin in women and, obviously men do not have the same activation.  But men appear to experience oxytocin when they relate to their children and they also experience oxytocin with touch.  It is both a mistake to say that oxytocin is only a female hormone and not a mistake because we do not know all the ways that oxytocin is activated in men.

6. Your research has supported the ‘Peaceful Touch’ programs in Swedish public schools. What is ‘Peaceful Touch’ and what results have been reported by the school systems?

Dr. Uväs-Moberg:  ‘Peaceful Touch’ is a program that works in a variety of ways.  One of the most important is that children are taught how to touch each other in peaceful ways.  Discipline problems have become very common in Swedish schools.  Teachers report that Peaceful Touch programs have (a) reduced the level of aggression in the classroom, (b) increased the length of time students can sit still, (c) enhanced students’ ability to listen, and (d) improved their ability to take information in.  It is important to realize that massage and/or peaceful touch is beneficial to both the giver and the receiver.   This activity is much better than giving children drugs to control their behavior.  There should be more money for good research of these programs in Swedish schools.  Oxytocin research also suggests that parents and children learning to give each other ‘Peaceful Touch’ could be very beneficial.  I recognize that ‘touch’ is a very controversial issue now, but believe that we may be able to find ways, even if it isn’t physical touch, to give our children experiences with calm and connection. 

7. Are there any medical conditions that you think might be helped by oxytocin?

Dr. Uväs-Moberg:    Children like autistic children, or others who have problems opening up, could benefit from oxytocin.  But, before we start talking about medical use of oxytocin, I believe we need a new system of ethics.  Unlike other ‘feel good’ drugs, oxytocin is very subtle.  People might not even realize that they’ve taken oxytocin.  An interesting study reported in the June 2005 issue of Nature examined the role of interpersonal trust and oxytocin.  Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich and his colleagues discovered that men who inhaled a nasal spray spiked with oxytocin gave more money to partners in a risky investment game than did the men who sniffed a spray with no active ingredient.  The researchers concluded that “oxytocin specifically affects an individual’s willingness to accept social risks arising through interpersonal interactions.”

Can you imagine this happening without people knowing they have been exposed to oxytocin?  A good thing could be used for bad purposes.  Obviously, it will be wonderful if we can help autistic children and others who cannot open to interpersonal relationships, but we need to think deeply about the ethics involved in any larger use.

8. Do you believe that there is relationship between intuition and oxytocin?

Dr. Uväs-Moberg: Yes.  Oxytocin fosters openness.  I am convinced that intuition is one branch of that opening.  For example, nursing mothers report a profound connection with their children and often intuitively know what their babies want, although the babies can’t express themselves verbally.  I believe that this knowing is an intuitive process.  There are many interesting questions about how intuition might work.  For example, what is the difference between memories and images which seem to arise from the future? How can we keep intuitive images clear and not distorted by wishful thinking or psychological reactions? These are interesting questions which should be explored someday.

9.  Assuming that you could do any further research on oxytocin that you wanted, what would interest you?

Dr. Uväs-Moberg: Two of the most interesting frontiers in oxytocin research are (1) the mental, mind, or psychological state of a person and (2) the relationship between spirituality and oxytocin.  In the former, I am interested to know if seeing images or thinking about things that relax you also causes the release of oxytocin. The neuroscientist and author, Antonio Damasio of Iowa University, raised this issue in an editorial in the same June 2005 Nature.  When asked if he thought that crowds of shoppers might be persuaded to purchase more if they were sprayed with oxytocin, Damasio referred to slick marketing campaigns that people are already exposed to.  He said that these campaigns lure, ‘you in with images of wonderful landscapes or sex, and [they] probably work in exactly the same way.” I, too, suspect that this images release oxytocin, but research needs to be done on how oxytocin works with mind or mental states. 

In the case of spirituality, it may be that prayer, contemplation, and meditation also activate oxytocin, but we have no way of knowing.  Energy medicine professionals are searching for ways to measure the physiology of body energy.  To date, I do not know of any reliable way to do this, but I believe that oxytocin will play a role and that common principles may be found in the Body/Mind/Spirit interaction.

 

     

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