It helps you fall in love, bond with your baby and beat stress. And now research shows that the hormone oxytocin could also keep you out of the divorce courts. Bring it on.
You wake up from a bad dream in which your partner does the dirty on you - and for a horrible moment, you think it's real. Registering your distress, your adrenal glands shoot out cortisol to put your senses on high alert, ready to face the Cheaters camera crew. Then your bloke wakes up and pulls you in for a cuddle, strokes your hair and whispers that it was just a dream. Responding to his touch, your pituitary glands release a burst of the hormone oxytocin into your nervous system, and within seconds you feel safe again. Your breathing and heart rate slow, and you're flooded with a warm feeling of connection and trust.
We've all experienced an O-rush. It's the feeling you get after yoga or a relaxing massage. It's what you feel when you lock eyes with your newborn baby (or that sexy-looking man at the bar). That loved-up glow when you hold hands with your husband or cuddle your fluffy dog. Eye contact, human touch, kissing, exercise and orgasm all release this feel-good hormone, and boy does it feel good. "When oxytocin reaches the brain's social centre, it interacts with other chemicals to make us associate warm-and-fuzzy feelings to that person. That's why it's so soothing and delightful to kiss, cuddle and canoodle," says Susan Kuchinskas, author of The Chemistry of Connection: How the Oxytocin Response Can Help You Find Trust, Intimacy, and Love. That's the power of O. It gets less attention than orgasms (and Oprah) but it's the glue that bonds us with others, and helps us live happily with our life partner.
Way to OResearch shows that's not all it does. Before 2002, the hormone was only ever tested on animals in the lab. Then researchers in Zurich discovered a way to test the hormone on humans, via a nasal spray. Since then scientists have been jumping up and down in their labs at the potential of oxytocin to help treat social phobias such as shyness, trust issues, anxiety and depression. "Oxytocin appears to have a broad effect on human thoughts and behaviour," says clinical psychologist Dr Adam Guastella, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Sydney's Brain and Mind Research Institute, who is currently testing to see if the hormone could help people with autism connect better with other people. "It could really change the way we treat behavioural problems and also means we can find out more about the way it affects human relationships, the way we connect and conflict with others." One study, for example, found oxytocin influences how generous we are. A team of researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), gave some participants a boost of the big O via a massage (human touch encourages its release into our bloodstream). All subjects then played a computer game that involved returning money to investors. The people who'd had a rub-down showed higher levels of the hormone - and gave back more money - than those who had no massage beforehand. They also found the females produced more of the love-drug in their bloodstream and returned more moolah than the men. Like the quiet kid at the back of the classroom, it seems this behaviour-changing hormone has been hugely underestimated