Oxytocin is the hormone of love and bonding. It is a hormone that is released from a part of our brains called the pituitary gland during those special, close moments with people we love such as during breastfeeding, childbirth, and even during orgasm. It allows us to bond with loved ones and makes us feel good. It also allows us to trust and connect with others. Sadly many individuals do not experience the positive benefits of oxytocin due to social isolation, lack of meaningful relationships, or due to other life circumstances that have resulted in them being distanced from others. Yet studies have revealed that good health is directly connected to the quality of social connections that we have and the quality of our social connections is related to how much oxytocin our brains release during our interactions with those significant others.
Many people experience poor health because they are lonely, and they long for someone to share life’s experiences with. I have noticed this to be true even for those individuals who eat well, exercise, and do all the other ‘right’ things when it comes to healthy living. If they are devoid of positive social and emotional connections they suffer in some way whether it is from unexplained physical symptoms or mental health problems.
I recall a beautiful woman in her forties who came to see me as a patient struggling with a general feeling of being unwell. She suffered from fatigue, headaches, stomach pains, and an inability to sleep. We undertook many possible investigations to get to the root cause of her issues and found that she had a clean bill of physical health. There was simply no obvious physical explanation for her symptoms. Over the course of several consultations she revealed that she was desperately lonely. She had never been in a longstanding relationship because she suffered with very low self-confidence. This stemmed from being put down by a high-school boyfriend due to her mild cerebral palsy she had suffered at birth. The emotional drain from feeling so alone was affecting her physically. I suggested some counselling to deal with her underlying feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem to which she was agreeable. She found that over the course of treatment her confidence levels began to rise and she started to date again. As a result, her mood lifted and so did her well-being.
This story highlights the fact that in order for us to truly realise the benefits of healthy living on our physical and mental well-being we also need to have positive social interactions. This does not just mean intimate relationships but also friendships. In essence we need to be socially connected in order to be well.
Let us expand on the exact health benefits of having social connections and then look at how we can form these strong connections and maximise oxytocin release from our brains.
Social Connections & Good Health
Interestingly, developing strong connections has been shown to be as effective as diet and exercise in determining health and well-being. Scientists have suggested that the reason for this is because social interaction is hardwired into our brains and is needed for survival.
In fact, having social connections has been shown to reduce many of the following major diseases and health conditions:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Cognitive decline
- Vulnerability to infection
- Chronic pain
- Type 2 diabetes in men
The reduction of the above conditions has been shown to occur regardless of a person’s social status, age, gender or race. This means that our need for connectedness is universal, as is evidenced by examining all cultures from around the world.
Furthermore, studies have repeatedly revealed that those of us who are highly socially connected, have good social support, and have rewarding social relationships report more overall well-being, improved self-esteem, few anxiety and depressive symptoms, less social avoidance, and less sensitivity to being rejected.
But it can be difficult to develop true friendships in a society that values personal autonomy, anonymity and independence. We have such busy lifestyles that many of us find ourselves socially isolated. I have heard it coined that the way we are living today is like living in ‘social Siberia’, meaning we are existing in such close proximity to others but so far away in emotional connection. So, that being said, how do you develop and maintain positive social connections?
How to Build Positive Social Connections
Firstly, studies have suggested that it is the quality and not the quantity of relationships that determines whether we feel that we are socially connected and thus reap the health benefits thereof. So focusing on developing a small number of quality, meaningful friendships is a better approach than trying to be friends with everyone.
Secondly, forming relationships is about developing mutual areas of interest. So participating in a joint hobby or cause can lead to lifelong friendships. Examples might be a sporting club, volunteer organisation, church group, or other hobby group. Forming friendships based on unhealthy habits such as friends who only meet if alcohol is involved may not be the best approach for forging meaningful and healthy relationships.
Thirdly, developing friendships takes time and effort. Sacrifice is therefore sometimes needed on our behalf as there are so many things competing for our time and attention these days. Investing into quality friendships is like investing into blue-chip shares; the return on investment may not be straight away but definitely pays dividends well into the future. In other words, by investing in meaningful friendships we will experience mutual support and benefits well into the future. Finally, the health and emotional benefits of having friendships extends to that of the furry kind. Those who own pets on average experience better health and live up to five years longer than non-pet owners. So at the very least, or in addition to our human friends, we could consider getting a pet to
improve our well-being.
Now that we know how to build a sense of social connectedness into our lives we need to know how to boost those connections in order to experience the maximum amount of bonding and mutual trust. This in essence means that we need to know what the research says about boosting oxytocin release from our brains when we are interacting with others, as oxytocin is considered the key ingredient to forming close ties.
Dr Cris Beer
Holistic Medical Doctor