The Chemistry of Love: Understanding Oxytocin

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The Power of Social Bonds

It makes sense that love, happiness, and good health are all related. In one report, studies found that even when all of our basic needs are met, humans fail to flourish without loving relationships.1

Strong, loving social bonds are some of the most fundamental building blocks of evolution. Without love and social interaction, humans might be a very different species. Even the most primitive bacteria have social interactions that support the whole (the collective community) in becoming stronger than the sum of its parts (the individual cells).1

One of the common denominators of centenarians (people who live over 100) is that they all seem to have very strong social bonds with family and friends. Fundamentally, as humans, we seek sociality to feel safe and accepted by others. Once the feeling of love, acceptance, or safety is established, we have a relaxation response.2

Seeking Love for Survival

As young children, we are hard-wired to seek love and acceptance from our parents or caregivers, which provides a sense of safety. This desire to be loved and approved of is genetically coded into our survival nervous system. In fact, studies suggest that numerous physiological functions are dependent on love.1,2

This feeling of safety from love and acceptance creates the same chemistry of reward in our bodies that drives aspects of hunger, digestion, growth, development, and reproduction.3

Research has also shown that love has an important stress-reducing, health-promoting potential, since it can facilitate beneficial motivation and behavior that promotes our survival.4 Further, it has been found that joyful activities (such as love) may activate areas in the brain responsible for emotion, attention, motivation, and memory, and influence the autonomic nervous system, which governs our response to stress.5 Science has shown that stress and painful experiences increase risk of illness, while sociality in the form of love, faith, hope, and laughter soothe experiences of stress and pain.3

Love often goes hand-in-hand with feelings of joy, interest, and contentment, and science has shown many intriguing health benefits of these positive emotions as well. A positive psychological state is associated with enhanced health and well-being, including favorable effects on heart rate, blood pressure, and inflammatory markers.6 Joy has been associated with lower morbidity and stress rates in a study of adults aged 65-867 and research shows that positive emotions such as joy, interest, contentment, and love build upon each other for optimizing health and well-being.8

While being social is a learned form of creating a sense of safety and belonging, touch is considered an inborn or innate form of love, security, and well-being.3 Giving loving and caring touch, holding someone in need, and massage have all been shown to stimulate natural production of oxytocin in our bodies. Oxytocin is a hormone associated with love, bonding, giving, and caring for others. Basically, the more you love, the more oxytocin you produce and the more you can love.9

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Could Oxytocin Be The Healing Power of Love?

lifespa image, love potion, oxytocin

Studies suggest that the production of oxytocin is linked to numerous health benefits, including pleasure, happiness, stable mood, and a better ability to handle stress. Oxytocin is associated with increased social interaction and is linked to longevity and an anti-stress response in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), the primary pathway connecting the gut microbiome to the brain. This pathway is linked to the health of almost every physiological function in the body.10

From Needing Love to Being Love

Research suggests that we are hardwired to need love and approval to feel safe. This safety drives sociality and even evolution.1-3,9 Furthermore, studies have shown that oxytocin, the love hormone, is naturally produced without any promise of the reward of being loved, approved of, accepted, or even safe.10

From an Ayurvedic perspective, a shift that takes place from childhood, when one needs love to feel safe and survive to adulthood, where one is contented by giving, loving, and caring.

Dopamine, known as the reward hormone, is triggered and released in our bodies when we receive acceptance and approval from others. The pleasure from this reward hormone keeps us wanting another reward.

Oxytocin, on the other hand, is released when one gives love to another with no promise of reward or expectation to receive anything in return.10 This shift from needing love to being love is the entire premise of Vedic science, which includes yoga and Ayurveda.

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Establish Being, Perform Action, Change Your Life

Perhaps the most direct way to make this shift from needing love to being love is through meditation. Meditation provides the silence one needs to become more self-aware. With a heightened state of self-awareness, it becomes easy to see where you are engaged in activities and behavior dedicated to needing love rather than being love.

lifespa image, woman sitting on log looking at mountains, meditation

While meditation will provide awareness, the only way to change old protective patterns is to take action. Actions (karma) based on your true nature (to be the love rather than need it) are the way we lay down new neurological pathways in the brain to be free of the need for approval.

Performing random acts of kindness is one of the first steps. Try taking a chance and writing a note or sending a text saying something like, “Hi! Just wishing you a great day. Lots of love!”

The Vedic prescription for human happiness, Yogastha Kuru Karmani, means to establish being and then perform action.12 Thus, from an Ayurvedic standpoint, meditation alone is not a recipe for happiness. Meditation is an important tool, but without engaging in transformational action steps based on heightened awareness, it’s literally only half the instruction.

Ayur means life and veda means truth; so Ayurveda translates as the truth of lifeMeditation, yoga, and other Ayurvedic techniques all establish being, presence, and silence, but the second half of the Vedic prescription for happiness requires action.

Action must be based on veda, truth. OUR TRUTH IS LOVE. Instead of spending so much energy trying to be loved by others, now is the time to embody love. This is the truth of our lives: to let our love shine.

ayurvedic psychology

References

  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3537144/
  2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18227772
  3. http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=617232
  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15990719
  5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15990734
  6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19796062
  7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15248472
  8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15347528
  9.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23251939
  10. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4290532/
  11. Bhagavad-Gita. Ch. 2 – Verse 48

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