Don’t stress it – how Oxytocin could help reduce stress naturally
Our bodies are a veritable ‘perfect storm’ of chemicals and hormones, all sending conflicting messages to our stressed-out brains. From the moment we get up in the morning and spend that frantic hour trying to get the kids ready for school and ourselves prepared for the busy day ahead, we’re pumping a cocktail of ‘fight or flight’ chemicals through our bodies, raising our stress levels.
A certain amount of stress is actually beneficial for us and is hard-wired into our systems. But too much over a prolonged period of time can cause damage to our bodies and minds. Stress has been linked to everything from cancer and heart disease to mental health problems. So what is causing this cocktail of chaos, and is there anything we can do to redress the balance?
Our Fight or Flight hormones
There are three primary ‘stress’ hormones that can trigger the fight-or-flight response. This is often referred to as a ‘masculine’ response, but that doesn’t mean it only affects men. Women can feel that surge of stress hormones too, and it can cause a heightened emotional response in both the sexes.
- Adrenaline – Produced by the adrenal glands after the brain has received a signal that the body is in a stressful situation. This is the hormone that sets your heart pounding, your pulse racing and tenses your muscles to react by either fighting or running. In a dangerous situation it also gives you a surge of energy, should you need to run away quickly.
- Norepinephrine – Similar to adrenaline and also released from the adrenal glands and brain, this helps to move blood away from non-essential areas of the body (such as the skin) and towards the muscles and heart to help in the ‘flight’ reaction.
- Cortisol – This is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands and is nicknamed the ‘stress hormone’. Its effects are not as immediate as Adrenaline or Norepinephrine, but once the brain has recognised a threat it reacts by triggering the release of Cortisol. In certain situations this can be a good thing, as it regulates blood pressure and fluid balance. But if you’re a ‘worrier’ that chews over a problem for hours, this can lead to a prolonged, over-production of Cortisol that can damage the immune system, increase blood pressure and even make you break out in spots!
Oxytocin – The feminine hormone
There is another hormone that is perhaps not as well known as Cortisol or Adrenaline – but maybe it’s time we got to know it a little better as it can help enormously in natural stress management. Oxytocin is an incredibly powerful hormone that is released every time you hug or kiss someone.
It’s often called the ‘trust hormone’ that enables us to interact with others, so rather than a trust hormone, it’s perhaps better described as a ‘social interaction’ hormone. Given that it is able to dramatically reduce social anxiety, Oxytocin’s role as a stress-reducing hormone is key to achieving a more balanced, healthier approach to stressful situations.
Oxytocin receptors have also been found in the intestinal tract, suggesting that it can also improve intestinal inflammation. This means that understanding how Oxytocin works could lead to a reduction in common, stress-related conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and even help in controlling obesity.
It’s easy to get a daily fix of Oxytocin – hug someone! The simple act of physical contact causes the brain to release Oxytocin (as well as Dopamine) and the effects last for much longer than other hormones such as Adrenaline. The simple act of physical contact (and that can include giving your pets a hug too, or even simply thinking about someone you love) allows Oxytocin to get to work, bringing our stress levels down and helping our bodies re-boot into a more calm, relaxed and healthy state of being.
If we become more aware of Oxytocin and its benefits to our mind and body, it could change the way we react to stress, without the need for artificial chemical intervention.