I’m delighted that John Gray, the author of international bestseller Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, will be speaking at my 2015 Palm Beach Anti-Aging Summit in October.
I’m especially pleased he’s going to be talking about the dangers of stress and how it’s on the rise for both men and women – but especially women.
I’ve been talking to my patients about the dangers of stress for years – because, if left unchecked, stress will sabotage your immune system and accelerate aging.
John even tells me that on average women are four times more stressed than men.
But the problem for men and women – and the solution – is all in your hormones.
Not many doctors know that while most hormones decline as you get older, the stress hormone cortisol increases with age.
And an excess of cortisol will play havoc with your body. It’s been linked to the chronic inflammation at the root of heart disease, high blood pressure and cancer.1
Cortisol also directly suppresses the production of Natural Killer (NK) cells – special white blood cells in your immune system that target cancer and other infected cells.2
Most doctors simply push Big Pharma’s benzodiazepines (sometimes known as “downers” like Quaaludes) and antidepressants for stress. But drugs can’t cure the problem. They just mask it. And they come with nasty side effects.
It’s ironic to me that the very drugs that are supposed to calm you and relieve you of stress also cause headaches, nausea, aches, pains, weight gain, sexual dysfunction and suicidal thoughts.
John and I prefer to get to the root of the problem – the impact of the changing world we live in and the busy, disconnected lives we have come lead with our most intimate partners.
Instead of love and understanding, we are often left with a sense of isolation and exhaustion at home. We are stretched to the limit and have little energy for our personal lives.
Relationship problems are not only at the heart of much of today’s stress problems, but solving them is essential for combating stress.
And that means accepting that men and women cope with stress differently, and that the kinds of support we need to relieve our stress also differs.
For example, while men may need to switch off and retreat into his “cave” to forget the day’s problems, a woman may need to discuss things at length.
Those delicate hormonal reactions in your body and brain can quickly make mountains out of molehills when you’re stressed. And they can destroy intimate relationships.
But there’s one hormone that can help both men and women reduce stress and improve their relationships.
I’m talking about oxytocin, often referred to as the “cuddle” hormone.
While oxytocin is sometimes more relevant to women, like during pregnancy and childbirth, both men and women need healthy levels to reduce stress-building cortisol, and to feel at peace in their relationships.
John and I both recognize oxytocin as a key hormone for stress relief and relationship success. But we’re in the minority. Awareness of oxytocin is minimal, and we’re working to change that.
Oxytocin: The Key to a Stress-Free Relationship?
Oxytocin used to be known as the hormone that made mothers grow attached to their babies. But everyone releases oxytocin. Men make it in the same regions of the brain – the hypothalamus – as women. We may also make some in our reproductive tissues.
When you have an orgasm you release waves of oxytocin. It’s interesting to me that your brain would produce a hormone that makes you feel trust right after you have an orgasm. You might be tempted to think it’s an evolutionary mandate. That if you have an orgasm it means that you’re safe and that nature wants you to stay with that one mate.
And a study published in Biological Psychiatry shows oxytocin may help you get along better with your significant other.3
Swiss researchers gave 47 couples a nasal spray containing either oxytocin or a placebo. The couples then participated in a videotaped “conflict” discussion. Those who got oxytocin showed more positive and less negative behavior than those given the placebo.
It also counteracts stress. Oxytocin is linked to lower levels of cortisol, your stress hormone. Oxytocin release also frequently accompanies the release of melatonin, the primary hormone that regulates our body clocks.
Here are some other benefits of oxytocin: 4
- Oxytocin calms you. In one study, a single animal injected with oxytocin has a calming effect on a cage full of other anxious animals.
- Oxytocin increases sexual receptivity and counteracts impotence.
- Oxytocin increases immunity and speeds recovery.
- Oxytocin appears to be a major reason why antidepressants like Prozac work.
- Oxytocin reduces cravings. When scientists gave it to rodents addicted to cocaine, morphine, or heroin, the rats opted for less drugs, or showed fewer symptoms of withdrawal. Oxytocin also reduces cravings for sweets.
Make More Oxytocin Naturally
Higher oxytocin levels mean you can stay deeply in love, have more satisfying sex, stay close with your friends and family, and possibly even live longer.
This is why it’s a good idea to increase your oxytocin. Orgasms are a nice way to do that, and nursing a baby is another, but we all have lives, right? So we need some other, more practical ways to increase oxytocin.
One is to teach your body to produce it naturally, by choosing activities that promote its release.
The keys are to:
Meditate: A team of researchers from UCLA compared the brains of long-term meditators with non-meditators and found they had grown more gray matter in areas involved in emotion and response control. This may account for meditators’ abilities to cultivate positive emotions and engage in mindful behavior with others, which releases oxytocin.
The good news is you don’t have to be a yogi to get the benefits of meditation. New research shows that even if you take short-term training courses you can make dramatic changes in the oxytocin-producing areas of your brain. One study showed people could begin to alter their brains in just six hours with a type of meditation called IBMT, or Integrative Body–Mind Training.5
Here’s an IBMT exercise you can try for yourself. First, sit someplace comfortable and quiet, with your back straight but relaxed. Close your eyes, and let your thoughts flow freely. You don’t have to empty your mind. Follow your breathing, and try to sense any tension in your face. A furrowed eyebrow or a change in breathing cadence means you are getting stuck on a thought. The trick is to both let go of your thoughts and allow them to be there at the same time. This way of being with your thoughts, coupled with proper breathing and posture, brings you body-mind harmony and can help rewire your brain to promote oxytocin release.
Nurture Others: Your oxytocin production starts to decline as you age, and drops off after you turn 40. It’s the reason why minor irritations can become big deals, and why some of those hugs and sweet words don’t make everything bearable any more.
The way to offset that is to tell your body you need more oxytocin by increasing your social interaction, with more hugs, handshakes and pats on the back. Touch prompts your body to release oxytocin, so the more the better.
Breathe It In: In the study I mentioned above, they found that taking oxytocin may work the same way and have the same benefit as social contact. There are no known diseases associated with too much oxytocin. It also produces no side-effects.
Unfortunately, you can’t take a pill to get the benefits. Oxytocin breaks down too quickly in your stomach for a supplement to work. Even an injection won’t last too long in your body.
The only clinically proven way to take oxytocin is by nasal inhaler. Nasal oxytocin is completely safe, and significantly increases oxytocin in the blood. If you take it in doses of between 18-40 IU over the short term, there have been no adverse outcomes in any studies.6
Intimacy is Key: Intimacy is one of the most powerful ways to lower a woman’s stress levels, because oxytocin is produced by sexual arousal and orgasm. Oxytocin reduces blood pressure and cortisol levels.7 Though men and women have similar levels of oxytocin, women have more estrogen and that boosts the effectiveness of oxytocin.
To your good health,
Al Sears, MD, CNS
1. SC Segerstrom, GE Miller. “Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry.” Psychol Bull. 2004 Jul;130(4):601-30.
3.Beate Ditzen, Marcel Schaer, Barbara Gabriel, Guy Bodenmann, Ulrike Ehlert, Markus Heinrichs. “Intranasal Oxytocin Increases Positive Communication and Reduces Cortisol Levels During Couple Conflict.” Bio Psych, May 2009;Volume 65, Issue 9, Pages 728-731.
4.Marnia Robinson. “Cupid’s Poisoned Arrow.” North Atlantic Books, 2009.
5.Yi-Yuan Tanga, Qilin Lua, Xiujuan Gengc, Elliot A. Steinc, Yihong Yangc, and Michael I. Posnerb. “Short-term meditation induces white matter changes in the anterior cingulate.” PNAS August, 2010; vol. 107 no. 35 15649-15652.
6.MacDonald E, Dadds MR, Brennan JL, Williams K, Levy F, Cauchi AJ. “A review of safety, side-effects and subjective reactions to intranasal oxytocin in human research.” Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2011 Sep;36(8):1114-26.
7.B Ditzen, M Schaer, B Gabriel, G Bodenmann, U Ehlert, M Heinrichs. “Intranasal Oxytocin Increases Positive Communication and Reduces Cortisol Levels During Couple Conflict.” Biological Psychiatry. Vol 65, Issue 9, 2009 May; 728–731