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An Oxytocin Moment

I went to the BlogHer conference this weekend, which got me re-energized about Hug the Monkey, and I hope to incorporate some of the inspirations from the conference in the near future.

Chatting with some women during a break, I told them about this blog and why I was so interested in understanding and sharing information  about how the oxytocin response influences our relationships. One of the other women had seemed a bit cold and offputting to me when I first sat down, but we had warmed up to each other by that point.

She shared that she had been adopted at 11 months old and had felt detached for the first years of her life. I told her that I had felt the same way -- until I was 40. I felt that I understood exactly what she meant -- and I don't think I've ever actually talked to anyone about that disconnected feeling before.

Looking at her across the table, I felt almost teary-eyed.

I'm sure this was a nice little gush of oxytocin, released during this moment of intimacy and connection with a stranger.

I've certainly experienced this before; we all enjoy these moments -- some lucky people more than others. This is the first time I've been conscious of it while it was  happening.

I think that becoming more aware of my oxytocin response is an excellent step toward having it more often. So, thanks to that gorgeous stranger, wherever she is.

What's Your OQ?

Tonia Davenport published a quiz from Malcolm Godwin's book "Who Are You? 101 Ways of Seeing Yourself" that scores your oxytocin level. For example, if you feel less attracted to someone after making love, your body didn't feel that oxytocin rush; on the other hand, if you feel even closer to the person afterward, you've got your OT on.

Davenport says,

Our brains are constantly recreating an inner model or the actual world around us.

And that world is strongly influenced by our biochemical tendencies (as well as our life experiences.)

Oxytocin Eases Menopause

This week, Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg and Thomas Lundeberg were awarded applied for a U.S. patent for the use of oxytocin to treat the symptoms of menopause. Both are researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden; Uvnas-Moberg is author of "The Oxytocin Factor."

The patent covers oral and injectible drugs, as well as inhalants, creams and gels.

The present invention relates to the use of substances with oxytocin activity against climacteric disorders or similar symptoms due to dysfunction in the ovaries. It also relates to a pharmaceutical composition comprising at least one substance with oxytocin activity against climacteric disorders.

In addition to its role in social bonding, aka love, oxytocin's role in the parasympathetic nervous system includes the control of memory and learning processes and of various types of behaviour such as feeding, locomotion, as well as maternal and sexual behaviour. Oxytocin is also suggested to participate in the control of cardiovascular functions, thermoregulation, and pain threshold and fluid balance, according to the patent.

Inefficient thermoregulation leads to hot flashes, and memory loss is a common symptom of menopause.

The patent claims the use of oxytocin and additional substances that amplify its effects for treating weight changes, mood swings, hot flushes, somatic discomfort, dry and ulcerous mucous membranes, fissures, and bone loss during pre-menopause, menopause itself and post menopause (when menstruation has ceased for good).

The patent cites a study of seven women aged 60 to 70, which I assume was conducted by Uvnas-Moberg and Lundeberg, both tktktkt. The women were healthy except for their vaginal walls, which were thin and atrophied. Each inserted mg/ml of oxytocin gel into their vaginas.

After a treatment lasting 2-3 days, the mucous membranes had improved in that they looked like those in a fertile woman. They were all perfused with blood and all ulcers had disappeared.

At the same time, it was observed that the mood of the women was improved. They seemed obviously happy and reported that they felt happy, and many of them had resumed their sex lives.

In another experiment, five days of the same treatment relieved the symptoms of 20 menopausal women.

Sounds like a wonder drug to me!


Oxytocin in Therapy

Dr. Roy Resnikoff is a clinical professor at the UC San Diego School of Medicine and the author of the 2001 book "Bridges for Healing: Integrating Family Therapy and Psychopharmacology." I contacted him after reading an article of his published in 2002 in the Psychiatric Times about his use of meds in couples therapy.

Resnikoff believes drugs can be useful in couples therapy to control symptoms, improve communication, modulate biological temperaments related to personality issues and reduce stress.

I was struck by this paragraph:

"I believe sorting out biological from learned factors in personality style will help form the basis for using medications to enhance personality flexibility. New research on biological aspects of attachment continues to evolve. For example, Young et al. (2001) have described oxytocin and pitocin as neurotransmitters that enhance attachment behaviors in animals."

Four years after he wrote that passage, there's intense interest in exploiting the connecting and bonding effects of oxytocin for people with autism or other social disorders, and at least two drug companies are working on oxytocin-based drugs. So, I wanted to ask him what he thought now about the prospects for oxytocin in therapy.

Susan: Let's talk more about modulating biological temperaments. First, what exactly is a biological temperament?

Dr. Resnikoff: I'm borrowing from the work of Larry Seaver and Paul Soloff, who described four main biological temperaments: people who are a little detached, people somewhat negative or depressed, violent or semi-explosive and anxious/fearful. With medication, if you can tweak some of those inborn temperaments to make someone less detached, less depressed, less violent or fearful, then they may be more able to tolerate therapy and deal with the issues in their life.

Susan: Is personality dependent on biology?

Dr. Resnikoff: Most psychiatrists say it's about 40 percent genetic; the rest is based on environment. We're born with tendencies and depending on upbringing or culture that will be brought out. It's an interaction of genetic vulnerabilities and whatever happens to you that will determine your personality.

Susan: Does psychotherapy deal with the 60 percent?

Dr. Resnikoff: Yes. But psychology can also alter the 40 percent that's biological; you can retrain certain biological tendencies -- whether obsessiveness or other things, sometimes you can do a lot of that without medication. 

Susan: And how would you use psychopharmacology to modulate such?

Dr. Resnikoff: These temperaments are in a continuum with diagnosable symptoms. Each category has different types of medication that seems to be useful, even if someone doesn't have a diagnosable condition. For example, low doses of an antipsychotic can help schizoid people, those who are somewhat autistic or detached. If a person is anxious and fearful, serotonin help and various tranquilizers might help.

Susan: How you use drugs as an adjunct to psychotherapy?

Dr. Resnikoff: It depends on the case. If a person comes in initially, and they have panic attacks, are manic, or paranoid, they may need some medication right away to deal with the immediate crisis. Very commonly in couples therapy, I don't introduce medications for a couple of months because there's no obvious crisis. It's more about managing the temperaments. Three to six months down the road, when they know me and I know them, I explain that part of problem seems to be a temperament issue that's biological, and we may be able to modify that issue right there.

Susan: I'm sure you've gotten criticism from people who think it’s wrong to medicate to change behavior. How would you respond?

Dr. Resnikoff: If it's just a matter of giving oxytocin to correct the problem, it reduces all problems to biological issues and doesn't deal with the overall problem. If you're realistic, oxytocin might help a person feel a little more attached, but unless that's reinforced and the dynamics of the disattachment were looked at, that would be bad practice to assume things are just totally biological.

For example, I'm working with a new couple where the husband had an affair three months after they were married. He was terrified by the entrapment and emotional demands of the marriage. He really wants to be married, he was just overwhelmed by needs of the wife, which weren't excessive. I can imagine that, in his case, some oxytocin might facilitate his tolerating the attachment and closeness of a marriage.

Susan: Are there limitations to a pharmaceutical approach to bonding?

Dr. Resnikoff: Definitely. That would just be a small part of the equation, to tilt things in the direction of an attachment. There are so many different dynamics … to explain why a person is not attached. Medication by itself would not be enough to take care of all the factors.

Susan: Many people seem to hope that a shot of oxytocin could be a panacea for loneliness or isolation. What would you tell them?

Dr. Resnikoff: It's a factor, and I do use medications to help create a tendency toward treating whatever problem you have, but we have to look at the context of your relationships and background. I'd want to wait quite a while before including a medication, and I'd minimize the impact of medication as having only a small effect.

Regarding oxytocin, we will have to wait to see the actual clinical impact on people with various types of attachment problems.

I specialize in the use of medications for couples to promote therapy and connection, but that's just a small part of my practice, and [use of] oxytocin would probably be the same.

More about Ecstatic Birth

Okay, this piece comes right out and says it: Childbirth can be a sexual experience.

Because birth evokes many of the same physical systems and biochemicals as sex and orgasm does, it's not surprising that, when a woman is relaxed and open, she might feel a pleasure that's very like sexual pleasure.

Among the physiological similarities:

  • The uterus rhythmically contracts during both intercourse and labor, though the intensity of contractions is far greater in labor.
  • The vagina lubricates and opens during both processes.
  • Women are usually intensely emotional, vulnerable, and sensitive during both lovemaking and labor.

And, of course, pulses of oxytocin are released during birth and orgasm. The author, who is either Carl Jones or Jennifer VanderLaan, concludes,

"The fact that labor shares similarities with lovemaking doesn’t imply that every moment of labor is pleasurable – though labor can be extraordinarily fulfilling at times. But appreciating the sexual side of labor will help both parents to better relate to the experience."

Investing in Oxytocin

Thanks to the blog Proftom for reposting David Brook's New York Times Op Ed piece about, basically, investing in promoting the oxytocin response. Brooks advocates allocating social resources for programs that teach parenting, support parents and kids at risk of attachment disorders, and break the cycle of failed attachments.

On Sunday, Brooks wrote:

If I had $37 billion, I would focus it on the crucial node where attachment skills are formed: the parental relationship during the first few years of life. I'd invest much of it with organizations, like Circle of Security, that help at-risk mothers and fathers develop secure bonds with their own infants, instead of just replicating the behaviors of their own parents.