Brain and Body

Oxytocin ‘Love Hormone’ May Enhance Spirituality, Research Finds

September 21, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Photo credit: © Oleksandr Kotenko / Fotolia

The naturally-occurring compound affects “how we perceive the world and what we believe.”

Oxytocin, a naturally-occurring compound in our bodies dubbed the “Love Hormone,” has been shown in previous research to promote social bonding, altruism, trust, and more.

Oxytocin is released in the body during a number of pleasurable activities, from hugs to orgasms.  In fact, oxytocin nasal spray is being tested for use in couples therapy, as well as a potential therapeutic option for weight loss.

Now, social psychologists at Duke University have implicated oxytocin in yet another complex part of the human experience: spirituality.

LEARN MORE: Could “Love Hormone” Nasal Spray Salvage Your Broken Relationship?

"Spirituality and meditation have each been linked to health and well-being in previous research," lead author Patty Van Cappellen said in a press release, noting that the team was interested in exploring biological factors that may enhance these spiritual experiences.

"Oxytocin appears to be part of the way our bodies support spiritual beliefs."

For some quick background, oxytocin, which is produced by the hypothalamus, acts as a hormone and a neurotransmitter. Among other activities, it’s stimulated during sex, childbirth, and breastfeeding, and influences a number of different brain regions.

In the study, the team recruited 83 males, who were randomly assigned to receive a dose of either intranasal oxytocin or a placebo. The researchers note that these results can, therefore, only be applied to men until the research is confirmed with a female study population. Van Cappellen notes that oxytocin generally operates somewhat differently in men and women.

According to the research team, those who received oxytocin were more likely to express that spirituality was important in their lives, and that life has meaning and purpose — and this held true even after accounting for whether the participant belonged to an organized religion or not.

Further, the oxytocin-dosed participants were more likely to see themselves as interconnected with other humans and living things. They gave higher ratings to statements like "There is a higher plane of consciousness or spirituality that binds all people” and “All life is interconnected.”

The participants who received oxytocin also responded to guided meditation with more positive emotions, like awe, hope, inspiration, gratitude, and love.

Interestingly, the researchers found that oxytocin’s effect on spirituality was stronger among participants with a particular variant of the CD38 gene — a gene which regulates the release of oxytocin from the brain’s hypothalamic neurons.

Importantly, Van Cappellen cautions that these findings shouldn’t be over-generalized, since there are many different definitions of spirituality.

The research has been published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

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