Oxytocin is known as the “love hormone” – and it has a significant role to play in the menopause
This week, we are focusing on another important hormone: oxytocin. We tend to think of oestrogen as the most important hormone during menopause, but there are other key players in our bodies that shouldn’t be ignored.
What is a hormone?
“Hormone” is the general term for a family of chemicals responsible for producing signals used by cells to communicate across the “big” (thinking about the dimensions of a single cell) distances in the body. Hormones are present in all multicellular organisms with a circulatory system, so that means not only vertebrate and invertebrate animals, but plants, too. Yes, plants produce hormones. They can be grouped into different categories, the most important of which are the peptide (small protein) hormones and the bigger class of steroid hormones. Peptides affect cells in the same way that a person might try to interact with someone inside a house: they knock at the door, but ultimately they don’t come in.
What is oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a hormone that belongs to the peptide class. It is also known as the “love hormone”. It’s considered to be the “master hormone” of pregnancy and is responsible for bonding between mother and baby. This hormone is also responsible for certain social behaviours. After a woman gives birth, there’s a huge release of oxytocin: this is necessary to kick-start the bonding process and to initiate breastfeeding. It also comes into play during labour as it is responsible for uterine contractions (in fact, the number of oxytocin receptors on the uterus increases significantly during the later stages of pregnancy). Oxytocin is pivotal in relationships. Men produce this hormone, too – it helps them to bond with a newborn baby, for example. The synthetic form of oxytocin, Pitocin, can be used to induce labour and to stop post-partum bleeding.
What does oxytocin do?
It has many functions in the body; it also interacts with nerve cells. These are just a few of its roles:
- It initiates uterine contractions to start labour
- Stops post-partum bleeding
- Kick-starts breastfeeding and breast-milk production
- Stimulates nerve cells. This can have a role in relieving mood disorders such as anxiety
- May help to alleviate chronic pain
- Potentially enhances the establishment of memory
Is there a link between oestrogen and oxytocin?
One of the many functions of oestrogen is to stimulate the production of oxytocin. And as oestrogen dips with the onset of menopause, so we see a notable decline in oxytocin levels, too. This may contribute to some of the symptoms associated with menopause. On top of that, oxytocin may also play a role in progesterone regulation. The signals received by the ovaries to produce progesterone in the second half of the menstrual cycle may be delivered by oxytocin.
What’s the role of oxytocin in the menopause?
Just like every other hormone during menopause, levels of oxytocin decrease as well. This slump may contribute to, or even aggravate, menopausal symptoms. Since this hormone plays a pivotal role in the brain, researchers are now studying its effect on certain physical functions. One particular area of interest is the role of oxytocin in maintaining cognitive function. Studies are ongoing, so it’s still too early to say precisely what role this hormone plays in maintaining cognitive function after the onset of menopause. But there are studies already published on oxytocin’s role in osteoporosis and it may also be linked to weight gain after the onset of menopause too (so it’s not just oestrogen that’s a player here). One recent study has also demonstrated the positive effects of an oxytocin-based vaginal gel in treating vaginal atrophy.
So there we have it. We used to think about oxytocin as just a pregnancy/post-partum-related hormone. However, in the past few years researchers have discovered a whole new universe for this hormone. What’s most important for us is that it could be a significant player in menopause as well.