What is Oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the hypothalamus and secreted by the pituitary gland. This important hormone plays a crucial role in the childbirth process and also helps with male reproduction. Understanding oxytocin will help you take better care of your health and lead you toward a better understanding of how your body functions.
In women, oxytocin is responsible for signaling contractions of the womb during labor. The hormone stimulates the uterine muscles to contract, so labor begins. It also increases the production of prostaglandins, which move labor along and increases the contractions even more. Because of this effect, synthetic oxytocin (pitocin) is sometimes used to induce a woman to start labor if she cannot start naturally, or it can be given to make contractions stronger if a woman's labor is slowing.
Once the baby is born, oxytocin promotes lactation by moving the milk into the breast. When the baby sucks at the mother's breast, oxytocin secretion causes the milk to release so the baby can feed. At the same time, oxytocin is released into the brain to stimulate further oxytocin production. Once the baby stops feeding, the production of the hormone stops until the next feeding.
For men, oxytocin function is less important, but it does have a role to play in moving sperm. It also appears to affect the production of testosterone in the testes.
Studies of oxytocin also have found that it is an important chemical messenger that controls some human behaviors and social interaction. It is oxytocin that triggers the bond between a mother and an infant, and it may also play a role in recognition, sexual arousal, trust, and anxiety. Some research shows that the hormone may affect addiction and stress as well.
How is Oxytocin production controlled?
Oxytocin production is controlled by a positive feedback mechanism. This mechanism allows the release of the oxytocin hormone when a trigger occurs. The hormone then causes an action in the body, such as the letdown of milk or the start of labor contractions, which signals more production of oxytocin. The feedback cycle continues until the action, such as childbirth or feeding the baby, is complete.
Problems with Oxytocin Production
High and low oxytocin levels are possible, but research has not yet found any implications of these conditions. Men with high levels of oxytocin sometimes develop benign prostatic hyperplasia, or the enlarging of the prostate gland. This condition can cause urinary complaints. A lack of oxytocin can prevent the milk letdown reflex and make breastfeeding difficult. Low oxytocin levels have also been linked to depression, but using oxytocin to treat mental health conditions has not yet been studied sufficiently.
If you have further questions about oxytocin, or simply want to ensure that your hormones are functioning properly, you need the services of an endocrinologist. Find one using the “Find an Endocrinologist” form today.