Oxytocin is found only in mammals. When it is high, one experiences a sense of relaxation, rest, and growth, repair and healing, loving behavior and emotional-attachment. Love and nurturing early in our lives are necessary for optimum health, and healthy brain development cannot take place without it. It isn’t just that low oxytocin levels are an indicator of early neglect and lack of touching, it also indicates a dysfunction of the entire system, and serves as a prognosticator of our later mental and physical health. Its presence says, “I was loved and could develop normally,” its lack says, “I was unloved and my system is skewed.” That is what I mean by “marker.”
In the same way that we may increase sexual drive in males with testosterone injections, it may well be that we can “inject love” into people, or at least inject a hormone that encourages it – give people a shot of love, so to speak. This shot may help us attach to others and bond with partners, allows us to feel close to someone else, to feel and empathize with their feelings and pain. Bonding is a strong emotional attachment that helps us want to be with one another, to help and protect one another, and to touch and become sexual with one another. High levels of oxytocin encourage and strengthen bonding. Because early trauma and lack of love affect the output of this hormone, the ability to relate and have good sex later is determined even before birth and just after.
Someone can swear she is full of love, only to find herself very low in the essential hormone of love – oxytocin. It is actually good news that “less love” has a physical base, for there may be something we can do chemically to alter that state, and there is certainly something we can do psychologically to change it, as well. At sometime in the future we may be able to determine what proper love from a parent to a child is through the measurements of various hormones.
It has been proven that early parental love is a permanent painkiller. Rats who were able to self-administer painkillers by pressing a lever did not do so when given oxytocin. Oxytocin (OT) inhibits the development of a tolerance to drugs such as morphine, and also decreases the painful withdrawal symptoms that occur when one is taken off these drugs. The degree of addiction can be measured by the severity of one’s withdrawal, yet oxytocin reduces the severity of these symptoms. Love will do the same thing, but early love calibrates the system for life. A current shot of love, such as someone hugging and kissing us, may well change the levels temporarily. If we rub the belly of an animal the oxytocin levels will rise immediately, but once the initial critical period of the system’s development has passed, every change we can effect will be transient. Once we arrive at adulthood, oxytocin levels are fairly set. One can be given a shot of it, but it will not have a permanent effect, for once low levels of oxytocin or high levels of stress hormones are registered early in life, it is difficult to re-establish normal set points. After the critical period to receive love is over, the only way to normalize the system is to neuro-chemically relive the early events that dislocated the set points. We must feel again “unloved” in all its agony if we are to ever have any chance at normalization; and that agony has numerous biochemical components, which are measurable. Remember again, the effect of resonance. Feeling pain in the present can trigger off related pain going all the way back to the womb. That early pain can join the current feeling and become absorbed into the system, eventually leading to connection and resolution. What that does is lift the repressive gates and allow feeling to flow throughout the system.
Another key neuro-hormone, dopamine, helps maintain an optimum level of brain stimulation. Like oxytocin, very early experience can alter this hormone’s set-points. For example, a pregnant woman who takes tranquilizers can block dopamine output in her fetus. Later in life, the need for a stimulant such as cocaine occurs when dopamine levels are chronically exhausted; cocaine artificially increases dopamine in the synapses between brain nerve cells. One may get hooked on cocaine in order to feel more aggressive and outgoing, to experience more pleasure and fun in life; it can transiently produce greater self-confidence and an ability to confront others.
Dopamine also kills pain, in the sense that it is a feel-good hormone. This is all what would have happened if one had a healthy gestation and a warm loving early childhood – then it would be unthinkable for anyone to get hooked on cocaine. Cocaine can temporarily make up for the lack of love, but it cannot last. Cocaine has an effect only when early love is missing; it takes some of the fear out of the system and produces a “can do” attitude. Ah, but that’s exactly what mother’s love would have done! Why does one develop an addiction, then? Because one has to go back to the drug again and again in order to produce the good feeling. We are addicted to need, and then addicted to drugs that fill that need even symbolically. We have transformed the originally unfulfilled need into the “need for.” And when we seek fulfillment in the symbolic need (sex or drugs or gambling) guess what happens—dopamine increases.
There are many kinds of hormones that play into love and sex; I am extracting these for discussion and to show how early experience affects adult behavior. Many years ago we studied testosterone in our male patients. We also classified those who were low on testosterone as parasympaths – those dominated by the passive, reflective, healing nervous system. Those, who were high in testosterone, tended to be sympaths, meaning they were more aggressive, goal seeking, optimistic and ambitious (looking ahead, an analogue of the birth process). After one year of Primal Therapy, those who were low on testosterone tended to rise, while those who were very high tended to come down a bit; in brief, their systems would normalize.
When it comes to love, however, oxytocin is by far the most important hormone. The question we now face is what came first: lowered oxytocin and then the inability to love and to bond, or the lack of early love, which lowered the set points of oxytocin? I would choose the latter. Because hormones are so sensitive to early trauma, we must take care not to blame high or low levels to genetic factors. We must never forget the critical nine months of life in the womb.