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Podcast: Can oxytocin help us bond with everything?

In this episode, Dr Shoba Poduval tells us how oxytocin works and whether it can truly bond us with everything.

A diagram displaying the formula of oxytocin

25 October 2023

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ROBERTA LIVINGSTON: Hello and welcome to ask the expert where you ask the questions and UCL's finest experts answer them. I'm your host, Roberta Livingston, a schools engagement assistant at UCL East and today my guest is Doctor Shoba Poduval, who is a GP that works in the community providing primary healthcare services for patients. And today's question for Doctor Shoba Poduval is, can oxytocin help us bond with everything?

DOCTOR SHOBA PODUVAL: This is an interesting question. The answer, in short, is no, it can't help us bond with everything, but it can help us bond just to start by explaining what oxytocin is for those who don't know, it's a hormone. It's also known as a social hormone, and it's produced by all mammals, including humans. It's produced in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus and it's released by the pituitary gland. Its main function in humans at least, is to facilitate childbirth and child rearing, and so it's also sometimes called the love hormone. Some people might have heard of it being referred to in that way and it acts a bit like your endorphins and hormones, like serotonin. Which promote positive feelings and make you feel warm and fuzzy. And we know that it's involved in a number of different social behaviours which include bonding between pairs or within pairs I should say. OK, parenting coping with social stress, group relationships and social communication in humans. Others said one of the roles that's best known for is bonding and attachment, either in human pairs or between parents and their children. It's also been shown to decrease stress and anxiety levels and research suggests that oxytocin can have a positive impact on social behaviours related to relaxation, trust and overall psychological stability. It's been found that people with depression have lower levels of oxytocin and as well as boosting oxytocin through social interactions, you can also boost social interaction through exercise. So one study that I found noted a rise in oxytocin levels measured in participant saliva after high intensity martial arts training, which is interesting and music can increase oxytocin levels too, particularly when singing or playing in a group, because that adds this element of bonding.

So I've mentioned parenting and human bonding. I'm going to start with that because I think that. It's quite helpful to understand before we start talking about other types of animals, so lots of research has gone into looking at oxytocin levels in parents, particularly mothers. During and after the pregnancy to find out how mothers bond with their babies and it's been found to be one of the key bonding hormones as well as being crucial for childbirth itself. So triggering the contractions that help get the baby out and milk production as well. It's really vital in that early time. Oxytocin has been found to be related to bonding behaviours too, including gaze. So looking at the baby vocalisations sounds that the baby makes affectionate touch and this has been looked at in men too. And it's been found that oxytocin levels also rise in in fathers. So oxytocin in people can start to rise even before the baby's born. If a man lives with his pregnant partner and their oxytocin levels start to synchronise, which I think is really interesting, and we think that's because it helps to bring them closer and to prepare them for parenting. It's a really interesting evolutionary mechanism I think. And the more closely bonded the the partners are to each other through this oxytocin synchronisation, the easier it then makes it for them to be a a parenting team. So I find that really interesting and with dads we think they get a higher oxytocin. Level from sort of active play sort of rough and tumble play. That we sometimes think of when we think of dads and so children preferentially seek them out as their play partners as well. And that's why dads are sometimes labelled the fun parent, moving on to thinking about other animals.

So I think the person who's asked this questions interested in animals other than humans. As I said, all mammals produce oxytocin. So think of sort of larger animals. I'm gonna talk about dogs and sheep in particular for example. So oxytocin is also involved in social interaction between humans and animals, and we've seen that a lot with pets, particularly so a lot of people who have pets will know that stroking or patting your pet. Can make you feel. More calm and relaxed and there's. An underlying physiological mechanism for that. Or that's where oxytocin comes in. So studies have looked at oxytocin levels before or after humans interact with their dogs and found higher levels of oxytocin after the the interaction as well as the endorphins I mentioned earlier. There's definitely something biochemical going on there in a very similar way to what happens with humans. This is just the oxytocin works between species, and there's a similar feedback loop as that that we see in humans and and particularly between parents and children and it tends to be mediated by gaze again. So looking at the animal brings on this rise in oxytocin and thinking that evolution and why this has happened and what the benefit is, there's a suggestion that the evolutionary mechanism might be that dogs have taken advantage of humans, humans, parenting sensitivities. So they've kind of hijacked this parenting relationship and they use gaze as a way to generate feelings of social reward and caretaking behaviour in in the owner.

Some scientists have also looked at other animals. So I found another study looking at sheep in specific lambs. So they took sixteen female lambs and artificially fed them, and also gave them a series of stroking sessions for 30 seconds or so, and at six weeks they measured their oxytocin and cortisol responses. So we talked about oxytocin being the happy positive. Healing hormone cortisol is a stress hormone released by your adrenal glands. So that's looking at stress response. And they gave they they had two phases of the study. There was the first six minute phase where the lamb was in their home pen with the familiar care givers, gently, gently stroking them. And then they did another phase where they isolated the lamb on their own but then brought them back to the caregivers So there was a phase of reunion with the familiar caregiver as well. And the lambs expressed agitation during the whole period of isolation, but they responded warmly towards the human and were less agitated when they were reunited with them. So there was. That familiarity aspect there. And there was no change in. The cortisol level the. Stress hormone. But the oxytocin levels didn't vary during contact, but did increase. When the caregiver left the lamb alone in the test pen, so the researchers concluded that lambs a responded warmly to familiar caregivers and the increase in the oxytocin suggests that the oxytocin was acting as an anti stress hormone during the isolation. So it was like the lamb's way of coping. With being isolated and oxytocin as the mechanism for that in a very similar way that we see with humans. So I think broadly our our conclusions are that mammals are very similar and oxytocin is one of the hormones that we all have in common and the act in very similar ways between different animals.

ROBERTA LIVINGSTON: And so there you have it. It oxytocin helps us bond with each other our offspring and animals, but it does not necessarily bond us to everything. And that is the end of this episode. If you wish to submit your own question for an expert to answer, just type in, ask the expert UCL on your search engine and our website should be the first to. Pop up. Thank you. Till next time.

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