By Maureen Salamon
It’s well-known that sex can make people sleepy. So can melatonin, a hormone available in pill form that helps regulate sleep-wake cycles. But where does oxytocin fit into this? Scientists are still figuring that out, though oxytocin seems to combine with other chemicals and situations to bring on the zzzz’s more quickly.
Assessing the influence of oxytocin on the sleep pattern of male rats, German researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry reported that oxytocin released in the brain under stress-free conditions naturally promotes sleep. Their study, published in July 2003 in the journal Regulatory Peptides, used an oxytocin “agonist” – a drug that binds to cells to produce a certain response – to determine that natural oxytocin produced in the brain brings on sleep.
In humans, however, research linking sleep strictly to oxytocin levels is spotty, scientists say.
“There aren’t any studies that even speak to this in humans,” says Dr. Kai MacDonald, an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of California-San Diego, who has studied oxytocin’s effects on schizophrenics.
“There is interesting literature on partner presence and sleep,” MacDonald adds, “and I have a lot of patients who say that when their partner is there, that’s better for sleep than any sleeping pill I can give them.”
Indeed, oxytocin’s role in the partner-sex-bonding recipe may be what really connects it to sleep. A cocktail of chemicals released at orgasm, which includes oxytocin and vasopressin, a related hormone, can help bring on dreamland very quickly, studies say.
Oxytocin’s and vasopressin’s release frequently accompanies that of melatonin, which is produced in the brain’s pineal gland and is the primary hormone that regulates our body clocks. Also, oxytocin’s proven ability to reduce stress levels can easily lead one into a relaxed and sleepy state, according to Scienceline, a project of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University.
“It’s highly probable that there is a melatonin-oxytocin link,” says C. Sue Carter, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and co-director of The Brain Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Male prairie voles were studied and showed a sleep-sex link but that didn’t prove it was oxytocin.”
“It’s pretty complicated,” adds Carter, one of the nation’s first oxytocin researchers. “I certainly agree that post-orgasmic behavior for most people reduces anxiety and allows people to sleep better.”
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Written by Maureen
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