Oh, what the cuddle hormone, oxytocin, can do for you! Long famous for helping moms and newborns bond, new reports show this chemical, produced by two specialized areas in the brain's hypothalamus, does far more than that for women and men; it boosts happiness, fine-tunes communication skills, improves everyday relationships and chases away anxiety and stress.
As a take-a-dose-and-feel-better medication, oxytocin's not ready for prime time. But some day this neuropeptide could be the basis for new treatments for everything from autism and eating disorders to serious mental health problems.
In fact, preliminary studies indicate that a nasal spray of oxytocin can increase activity in brain areas involved with understanding and response to social cues in kids with autism, and that it can dial down obsessive thoughts about food and body size in people with anorexia.
It may even help ease drug addiction.
Fortunately, there are natural ways to boost your oxytocin levels. And you'll love the results.
Rising levels help dads bond with their kids and bolster a male partner's loyalty to his mate.
And a surge of oxytocin increases both men's and women's trust and resilience, promotes deeper sleep and reduces depression.
A blast of the hormone also encourages you to connect with your mate, friends and children, especially when times are tough.
Such closer connections and social support open the door to a long list of health benefits, including stress reduction, better heart health, stronger immunity, more efficient digestion and even a longer life.
So here's how to boost your levels of this feel-better, love-better, live-better hormone:
More sex. Between-the-sheets intimacy releases a rush of oxytocin. Set your alarm clock to ring 30 minutes earlier for some morning affection to enjoy feeling more loving, bonded and relaxed all day.
Longer hugs. Hold on longer next time you hug your mate, kid, parent or good friend. A top oxytocin researcher says an extended embrace (aim for 20 seconds) cues oxytocin's release from your pituitary gland.
A mini-massage. Next time you pass one of those massage kiosks at the mall, or your mate or a pal offers to knead your shoulders, say yes. A 15-minute back massage boosted oxytocin levels for lucky volunteers in one recent University of California San Diego study, while those who simply relaxed in a quiet room for 15 minutes missed out on this bonus.
Quiet support. Got a great relationship? Soak in it. Spending just 10 minutes of quiet time holding hands with your partner can raise oxytocin levels, vaporize stress hormones and reduce your blood pressure, too. For best results, turn off the TV, silence your cellphone and tell the kids you're taking a break. Getting a blast of oxytocin doesn't completely depend on skin-to-skin contact; giving and receiving support and empathy is an oxytocin-boosting experience.
Movies that touch your heart. Turns out your brain reacts to fictional characters on the big screen just as it would to people in the real world, and you can use your imagination to your advantage. Skip the screwball comedy and the latest disaster flick at the cineplex. Watching an emotionally compelling movie (even "chick flicks") can raise oxytocin levels 47 percent, by switching on feelings of empathy.
Tweeting, texting, updating your Facebook page. Connecting via social media may also trigger an uptick in oxytocin, a discovery that social networkers have dubbed "digital oxytocin." This can be a nice bonus, but don't let Internet socializing take the place of in-person contact with pals.
Joining a choir or reviving your garage band. Singing in a group and listening to relaxing music have both been shown to ratchet up oxytocin levels. We bet playing music with others will, too.
Having an adventure. Do something exciting and new with your main squeeze or best friend. Sharing thrills, from dancing to amusement park rides and more, can make you feel more connected to one another and has been shown to boost oxytocin levels.
Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of "The Dr. Oz Show," and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. To live your healthiest, tune into "The Dr. Oz Show" or visit www.sharecare.com.