The Monogamy Drug

Looking for a warm and cuddly holiday season? Try a little oxytocin spritz along with the turkey.

Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the pituitary gland that activates certain reward receptors in the brain. It makes people compassionate. It makes women love their babies. It’s released during orgasm and causes couples to feel close to one another, thus its nickname, “the cuddle drug.” It’s also involved in addictive behavior, along with dopamine, another “feel-good” neurotransmitter.

A couple of recent experiments by Dr. Rene Hurlemann at the Bonn University Medical Center, however, suggest that oxytocin is a hormone that keeps men monogamous. Contrary to all kinds of evolutionary thinking, which would suggest that men would be driven to spread their seed in all directions, oxytocin appears to increase a man’s attachment to his sexual partner.

Monogamy is rare in the mammalian world. Only 3 to 5 percent of warm-blooded creatures pair up for life.

In his first experiment, Dr. Hurlemann spritzed a few men with oxytocin and then introduced them to an attractive woman. The men in monogamous relationships stayed 6.5 inches farther away, on average, from the woman than single men did. When the same partnered men weren’t spritzed, the extra distance disappeared.

Dr. Hurlemann decided to investigate further.

In his second experiment, the male subjects, who were all in permanent relationships, were hooked up to a brain scan. First, they were spritzed with oxytocin, and then they were shown photos of their partner, of other attractive women, and of female acquaintances.

Sure enough. The parts of the brain associated with reward (the nucleus accumbens) and motivation (ventral tegmental area) lit up at photos of the partner, but not at the strangers or at female acquaintances. Under the amorous effect of oxytocin, these guys also felt that their partners were more attractive than photos of the other women.

The researchers hypothesize that this hormone that is released during close physical contact and that tickles our pleasure center reinforces monogamy this way: A man may limit the spread of his genes by sticking with one partner, evolutionarily speaking. But by sticking around to create a stable environment and helping to rear his offspring, he increases the likelihood that they will survive to reproduce. So, rather than feckless promiscuity, evolution takes a different tack and oxytocin is the carrot.

And while that’s a cold, scientific view of the situation, lots of touching, cuddling, massaging, and good old sex will keep your man’s pleasure centers (as well as your own) well-lubed and attached to the source of the goodies! In Dr. Hurlemann’s research, even the close presence of the partner was enough to release oxytocin, giving new meaning to the saying, “stand by your man.”

While you’re basting that turkey, keep in mind that our traditional holiday fowl is also high in dopamine, which might be well-poised to edge out Valentine’s Day (even in spite of the afternoon football) as the season of love.

Q: Why did I orgasm while breastfeeding?

Remember oxytocin? It's a hormone that facilitated the let-down of milk when you were nursing, and it's released with nipple stimulation. Oxytocin also stimulates contractions for the uterus (which is why any of you who had labor induced might recognize oxytocin by another name: pitocin). Outside of childbearing, oxytocin works with other sex hormones to facilitate orgasm and increase the intensity of pelvic floor muscles. Oxytocin levels have also been noted to fluctuate  throughout menstrual cycles, correlating with lubrication.

This is a hormone that has lots of favorable effects on sex! There has been research in using it to enhance sexual function, but there's not a product readily available yet. Stay tuned!

Sex. It Really Is Chemistry.

What makes sex feel so good? What ignites passion and sustains attachment? What is it that makes your heart flutter? And how can you keep those feelings alive, especially in the bedroom, after 10—or 40—years?

Turns out passion and attraction—all the stuff of poetry, song, and story—are the product of your most ancient brain—the limbic system—which you have in common with lots of other animals and which regulates a chemical stew of neurotransmitters. Emotions, drives, impulses, and desires originate in the limbic system. This part of the brain is wired for pleasure and passion, and it operates independently of our conscious choice or will.

Now, just for the record, I refuse to believe that our primitive mammalian brain and a bunch of electrochemical impulses is all there is to love and romance, but a good part of what maintains a relationship and makes sex feel good is indeed all about the chemicals.

The neurochemicals in the brain have two evolutionary goals: to encourage reproduction and then to help maintain a sufficiently nurturing environment for offspring.

Sex is supposed to feel good so that you have lots of it and fulfill your evolutionary mandate to multiply. We wouldn’t last long as a species if sex felt bad. But lots of casual sex and many partners is counterproductive for the long and challenging process of raising children. So your neurochemical circuitry is finely tuned to make sex pleasurable, but also to reinforce the bonds with your mate.

And even though your children may be grown and gone, you still operate within that chemical framework. So you might as well understand it and use it to your advantage.

If you find something pleasurable, sex for example, or chocolate—or sex and chocolate—it’s because your limbic system releases a rush of dopamine when you indulge in what you crave. Dopamine drives people to fulfill their cravings. In one well-known study a rat receives a spurt of dopamine every time it presses a lever. Soon, the rat is obsessively pressing the lever, no longer eating, copulating, or tending to its pups.

Orgasm releases a big surge of dopamine.

Like the rat, you can’t exist on that tingly dopamine high, however good it feels. When there’s too much dopamine in the circuit, the brain begins to reduce the levels it produces and to shut down dopamine nerve receptors. That’s why addicts need an ever-increasing “fix”—more of the drug, sex, porn, or gambling—to reach the same high.

So, immediately after orgasm, dopamine levels drop and prolactin is released to calm things down, especially in males. Prolactin is the dopamine antidote. This is what regulates the “recharge” time in younger men (remember when?); it produces a feeling of sexual satisfaction—and sleepiness, which is why men tend to roll over and fall asleep.

So, don’t take it personally; it’s just the prolactin talking.

Endorphins are also released during sex. These are opioid-like neurochemicals, like morphine and heroin, that block pain and induce feelings of euphoria. They’re also released when you laugh or exercise. (That’s what’s responsible for the “runner’s high.”)

Vasopressin, another neurochemical released during sex, encourages bonding behavior. When vasopressin is suppressed in male prairie voles, a mammal that forms monogamous pairs, they tend to lose their sense of connectedness and become disinterested in their mate.

But the most important chemical that balances the irresistible dopamine “high” is oxytocin. This is the “cuddle hormone”; it makes you feel close and loving. It calms you and relieves stress. And unlike dopamine, you can never get enough of it.

Oxytocin is released during sex, but it’s also released during labor and lactation to create that instinctive bond between mother and baby. During sex, it reinforces your connection with your mate. It offsets the opioid-like cravings of dopamine and endorphins while making the two of you feel close and receptive to sex.

Evidence even suggests that when you have more oxytocin in your system, more nerve receptors are created just to accommodate them. So be sure to laugh, exercise, make love, and cuddle before and after (if your mate can stay awake) to create lots of receptors for your increased oxytocin levels.

And in order to increase your sensitivity to the dopamine and endorphin “high,” cuddle without the sex occasionally. Take a little sex break so that when you come together, your pleasure circuitry is primed and ready.

Your body is hard-wired for sex in the most primitive levels of the brain. When you make love, you’re producing the most potent chemicals your system is capable of. You are a sexual animal. Celebrate!

Harnessing the Power of Your Mind

“Your most powerful sex organ doesn’t lie between your legs,” the famous sex researcher Alfred Kinsey is reported to have said. “It lies between your ears.” (Or, of course, as Dumbledore said to Harry Potter, "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?") This has some interesting implications for sex—and for everything else in life. Your brain is your personal Grand Central Station with gazillions of nerve impulses arriving and departing, docking, disconnecting, and releasing armies of little chemical messengers, like dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin, into your system. In fact, these neurochemicals are what makes sex—or drugs or food—so irresistible.Stop saying I wish and start saying I will... Yet, you are more than your neurochemical impulses. You make choices; you can direct the course of your thoughts and actions. And therein lies the potential for harnessing that big brain power to improve not only the quality of sex you have, but also the quality of your life.

Begin with thoughts. “As you think, so you shall become,” goes the adage, so begin training your mind to think positively. Happy thoughts, sexy thoughts, visualizing yourself as a powerful, confident, attractive woman, actually recreate the circuitry in your brain. You can become happier and more powerful and confident, simply by rewiring your brain with a different kind of thinking. On the other hand, “when you’re immersed in swarms of negative inner dialogue about yourself and how you think and feel about sex, you’re grinding your sensory responses down to nubs,” writes Natalie Geld in her blog. So the first mental exercise—and it isn’t easy—is to harness the power of your thoughts.

Practice mindfulness. We’ve written about this a lot because it’s so important. We all experience the nonstop nattering of our chatty left brain; we’re all familiar with the distractions of tomorrow’s deadline or yesterday’s meeting that intrude on sex, sleep, and quiet evenings at home. Distraction is built into our fast-paced, multi-tasking, fragmented culture. MiddlesexMD_DickinsonMindfulness, on the other hand, is the mental practice of being fully present in the present moment, of installing an off switch in your left brain. It’s a discipline rooted in Eastern spirituality that immerses you in the present without distraction or judgment. You can practice mindfulness anywhere, but what better place to begin than when you’re making love? For one thing, nothing is sexier than someone who is completely focused on you; for another, it encourages your partner to respond in kind. In one study conducted by researchers Lori Brotto and Julie Heiman with the Kinsey Institute, women who had been treated for gynecological cancer were given a “phychoeducational intervention” to help them reestablish sexual desire and arousal. One component of the intervention included mindfulness training. “In particular, the women reported the mindfulness component to be most helpful,” write the researchers in their report. Paying attention to the present moment engages all the senses: the smell of your partner’s breath, the flecks of color in his eyes, how his skin feels against yours. Relaxed attention allows to you to release stress, which in itself can make sex more pleasurable. “Distracting thoughts, stress and worry are enemies of orgasm,” writes Debby Herbenick, a researcher with the Kinsey Institute. Some ways to develop a more attentive, mindful approach to life:

  • Do yoga. Besides developing strength and balance, yoga is all about clearing the mind of distractions.
  • Practice meditation. Whether a religious exercise or simply a way to relax and relieve stress, the purpose of meditation is to develop the ability to focus on the moment.
  • Pay attention to everyday activities. Next time you walk, wash dishes, eat a meal or perform any simple, repetitive task, don’t turn on the iPod or television. Don’t multi-task. Simply pay attention. Focus on the taste, sights, and sounds around you.
While sexual problems often have physical origins, don’t discount the power of the mind in contributing to their resolution. Positive thoughts and mindful activity can make sex better, and they can make life better. “Our ability to achieve an erection or ability to attain orgasm is far less important than our thoughts about those abilities,” writes psychotherapist Elisha Goldstein, PhD. “More often than not, unsatisfying sex is caused by the mind.”