Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


This Is Your Brain

love-stronger

(Photo: OPgrapher/Shutterstock)

Love Can Make You Stronger

• August 27, 2014 • 12:00 PM

(Photo: OPgrapher/Shutterstock)

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.

We know that love can make your brain feel good, but it has a bearing on your body, too. A study from the University of California-Berkeley, published in Nature Communications, found that oxytoxin, the hormone that’s most commonly associated with love and social bonding, can build and regenerate muscles and stave off sarcopenia—age-related muscle breakdown—as you get older. So if you’re in love, it might help to keep you strong, especially as you age. And if you’re not in love, you can fake it with nasal spray.

Irinia Conboy, an associate professor of Bioengineering at Berkeley who led the research team, studies degenerative diseases, and how bodies can regenerate new tissue. She’s been trying to find ways to combat aging and the muscle loss associated with getting older using stem cells and other regenerative tissue. “Since starting my lab in 2005 at Berkeley we have been working on finding molecules that emulate the positive effects of young blood, and oxytocin was one of the most promising candidates,” she says.

There is a wide body of research about how oxytocin, a hormone released by our pituitary gland, plays into interpersonal relationships and how it impacts our brains, but not a lot about how it can change us physically. Conboy says that her research aligns with previous studies that show how oxytocin levels dropped in postmenopausal women with osteoporosis, but other than that most of the existing research is more psychological than physical.

“Oxytocin could be potentially used to combat muscle tissue wasting caused by aging, disease, and immobility.”

Tissue regeneration is an area where Conboy thinks oxytocin could have a really significant impact, and soon. Already approved by the Food and Drug Administration for human use, oxytocin is, Conboy explains, a “physiological hormone with no known side effects and no association with cancer.” She says that in her lab they joke that everyone is happy because there’s so much oxytocin in the environment.

Conboy’s most recent study identified a drop in plasmic levels of oxytocin in aging mice, and showed how bumping those levels led to increased strength and muscle building. In tracking hormone levels during a different study, she and her team found lowered levels of oxytocin in older mice. When they injected the older mice with oxytocin they saw change in muscle tone within two weeks, and it was significant. “Subcutaneous injections of oxytocin to old mice, equivalent to 85-year-old people, enhanced their muscle repair, making it similar to young animals, equivalent to 20-year-old people,” Conboy says.

Oxytocin doesn’t just tone you up. It’s both a hormone and a neurotransmitter, which means that when it’s pumped out from your pituitary gland it spurs action in both your brain and your body. Mentally, it’s associated with positive emotions, like empathy, trust, and arousal, and it has been tied to fighting anorexia and to helping mothers bond with their babies. (Artificial oxytocin is even the main component of Pitocin, the drug that’s frequently used to induce labor.)

There are current clinical trials currently underway linking oxytocin to lessening the social impacts of autism, but some of that research has been fraught. In theory it’s a naturally occurring molecule that solves social and relational issues, but it’s not that straightforward, and because interest in oxytocin is relatively new, the long-term impacts aren’t yet clear. A study released in January from the Concordia University psychology department, for example, found that elevated oxytocin levels made people overly sensitive to social cues. You can’t just load yourself up with it and be happy. It’s also been shown to increase envy and decrease cooperation.

But when it comes to physical outcomes, which is what Conboy is focusing on, there have been a lack of negative side effects, even in high doses, which is both promising and rare. When she injected young, healthy mice that had normal levels of oxytocin with more oxytocin, nothing happened. Their cells didn’t regenerate at unhealthy levels. That often happens with other tissue-regenerating molecules and it’s associated with cancer, which means the FDA won’t approve them. Since oxytocin hasn’t been found to do that, it bodes well for human use of the hormone.

Not only can oxytocin build muscle and keep you strong as you get older, it can also help you heal faster, which is where Conboy thinks it can be really helpful. “With additional studies in animals, oxytocin could be potentially used to combat muscle tissue wasting caused by aging, disease, immobility, like in bed riddance after a major surgery, and weightlessness,” she says. “We also have reasons to believe that oxytocin might prevent osteoporosis and obesity.”

Heather Hansman
Heather Hansman is a Seattle-based freelance writer and a former editor at Powder and Skiing. Follow her on Twitter @hhansman.

More From Heather Hansman

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.