When I wrote about how loneliness contributed to my chronic illness recently, it generated quite a response from readers who sent me emails to share their own experiences. I discovered that I’m not alone in being affected by loneliness. It made me realise that since I released my documentary and started this blog a wonderfully strong and supportive community has been building. It’s an incredible thing and the response prompted me to dive a little deeper into the opposite of loneliness – connection.
When you think about it from an evolutionary perspective, the health benefits of being connected to others make a lot of sense. In comparison to other animals, early humans didn’t have a lot going for them. In wild Paleolithic days, early men and women weren’t particularly fast or strong, so individuals needed all the support they could get just to stay alive. Living in social groups meant there were more people to help with the hunting and gathering of food, bringing up the kids, and fending off attackers. Getting along with others was essential to your survival. This means that in the same way we have basic needs for food, water and shelter, we also have a basic need for connectedness. In fact, anthropologists have determined that the strongest predictor of a species’ brain size (specifically, the size of its neocortex, the outermost layer) is the size of its social group. In other words, we have big brains in order to socialise.
But what exactly is this human connection, why is it so good for us and how can we get more of it?
The search term ‘What Is Love?’ consistently ranks among the highest on Google. Unfortunately it is more easily experienced than defined. You know it when you feel it but love is hard to pin down, especially if you’re a scientist trying to work out why it is so beneficial to our health and wellbeing. There are of course many kinds of love. The love I have for my son is very different from the love I have for my husband. This comfortable love I feel for him has developed over time but it is different from the special kind of intimacy that I have with my best friend. I also have a general love of life and for humanity, and there is a new kind of self-love I’m coming to know which inspires me to make healthy life choices. The kinds of love I feel for my parents, partner, child, friends, relatives, neighbours, country and even God all have different qualities. Love can be blind, misguided, passionate, unreciprocated, secure, painful and unconditional, but when all is said and done, scientists will tell you that love is basically just chemistry. At every stage of the human experience of love your brain and body are flooded with a range of different hormones that influence your behaviour, mood and even your health. These hormones include dopamine (associated with pleasure and reward), serotonin (the feel good hormone), oestrogen (the primary female sex hormone), testosterone (the male sex hormone) and a whole host of others. But when it comes to the health benefits of love, one particular hormone is worth singling out. Oxytocin.
Oxytocin has many names including ‘the cuddle hormone,’ ‘the trust hormone,’ ‘the moral molecule,’ and even ‘the great facilitator of life.’ Essentially, it takes the centre stage when it comes to social bonding and attachment, encouraging our relationships throughout life from the moment we bond with our parents to the forming of romantic relationships as adults. It’s around during life’s big moments, abundantly present during sexual intercourse, childbirth and breastfeeding, but it’s also around during everyday moments like when you play with your kids.
As researchers delve ever deeper into the function and purpose of this ubiquitous love hormone, they’re discovering that oxytocin also has a significant role as a powerful immune regulator. By tuning down the stress response, it helps to buffer its negative effects. It does this in part by suppressing the stress hormone cortisol. It also modulates activity in the amygdala, your brain’s stress centre. Under the influence of oxytocin, parts of your amygdala that tune into threats are turned down.
This is not to say that oxytocin somehow dulls your senses. It actually heightens your attunement to social cues. For instance, you become more attentive of people’s eyes and subtle facial expressions. One of my favourite titles for a study I read while looking into all this was called Oxytocin improves "mind-reading" in humans, though rather than uncovering a sixth sense, the researchers were referring to the fact that oxytocin improves our ability to read and understand the mental state of others. The sum of all this scientific inquiry leads researchers to cast oxytocin as the leading character in what they call the calm and connect response, which is contrasted with the fight or flight response I’ve explored previously in this blog.
If you’re looking for ways to naturally boost your own cuddle/trust/moral/love hormone levels, aside from giving birth, breast feeding, having a skin-to-skin cuddle with your baby, and having sex, here are some proven ways to go about it, with links to the scientific research to prove it:
• Look for appropriate opportunities to hug people, or maybe try high fives if you don't have a touchy feely office environment
• Watch a movie or a read a book with an inspiring story line
• Practice Loving Kindness Meditation I’d love to hear from readers in the comments below if you have some other oxytocin booster tips and tricks.