These new findings regarding oxytocin's effect on autism are in the early stages, but the love hormone has a longer track record when it comes to its role in maintaining marriages and friendships. You see, simple gestures like caresses, a pat on the shoulder, or hugs between friends or lovers are enough to send this calming hormone into your system, where it lowers stress-hormone levels, brings down your blood pressure, and reinforces feelings of closeness. "Certainly, when you feel more calm, connected, or comfortable, that can help to reduce stress responses, which is good for the heart," explains researcher Debby Herbenick, PhD, author of Because It Feels Good: A Woman's Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction (Rodale, 2009) and associate director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University. "So there’s the potential for a healthy chain reaction of events."
Here are ways to naturally boost your body's oxytocin production:
• Walk this way. Just linking arms, holding hands, or draping an arm around your significant other, child, or person you care for can produce an increase in oxytocin. Don't be afraid to show affection, and if you want to stop and hug during the walk, hug! Really, it's that simple.
• Have (good) sex. Adults seeking an oxytocin surge should head for the bedroom. The hugging and touching during foreplay fires up the love chemical, and orgasm spikes the hormone level to two times the normal amount. This opens the door to a relaxed feeling and a greater opportunity to bond with your partner.
Interestingly, among premenopausal women, oxytocin is naturally higher during ovulation because estrogen intensifies the love hormone. This may partially explain why women seem to be more prone to touch and other displays of affection during ovulation.
• Daydream about your significant other. Research out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill discovered that happily married women quickly released a dose of oxytocin when asked to think about their husbands. But of course, try not to spend too much time apart. "While absence is said to make the heart grow fonder, from a neurophysilogical perspective there is little doubt that regular intimate contact with a loved one is preferable," says Crook.
• Count on your cat. Husbands and wives can be moody and go through affectionate dry spells, but it always seems like a loyal pet is there to make owners feel good. And because the release of oxytocin is triggered by touch, petting a dog or cat you love can also increase oxytocin levels, explains Crook.
• Find comfort in familiar favorites. The smell of your mother's signature chocolate chip cookies, hearing kind words from someone you care about, waking up early to hear the dawn choir chirped by chickadees and other backyard birds—these are all ways to boost oxytocin. Crook says immersing yourself in familiar and comforting smells, sounds, music, and even pleasant thoughts and memories can coax your oxytocin meter higher.