Dose of oxytocin may make men feel spiritual

The hormone oxytocin, dubbed the “love hormone” for its role in promoting social bonding, altruism, and more, may also support men’s spirituality.

In a recent study, men reported a greater sense of spirituality shortly after taking oxytocin and a week later. Participants who took oxytocin also experienced more positive emotions during meditation, says lead author Patty Van Cappellen, a social psychologist at Duke University.

“Spirituality and meditation have each been linked to health and well-being in previous research,” Van Cappellen says. “We were interested in understanding biological factors that may enhance those spiritual experiences.

“Oxytocin appears to be part of the way our bodies support spiritual beliefs.”

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The findings apply only to men, says Van Cappellen, associate director of the Interdisciplinary and Behavioral Research Center at Duke’s Social Science Research Institute. In general, oxytocin operates somewhat differently in men and women, Van Cappellen adds. Oxytocin’s effects on women’s spirituality still need investigation.

Oxytocin occurs naturally in the body. Produced by the hypothalamus, it acts as a hormone and as a neurotransmitter, affecting many regions of the brain. It is stimulated during sex, childbirth, and breastfeeding. Recent research has highlighted oxytocin’s possible role in promoting empathy, trust, social bonding, and altruism.

To test how oxytocin might influence spirituality, researchers administered the hormone to one group and a placebo to another. Those who received oxytocin were more likely to say afterwards that spirituality was important in their lives and that life has meaning and purpose. This was true after taking into account whether the participant reported belonging to an organized religion or not.

Participants who received oxytocin were also more inclined to view themselves as interconnected with other people and living things, giving higher ratings to statements such as “All life is interconnected” and “There is a higher plane of consciousness or spirituality that binds all people.”

Study subjects also participated in a guided meditation. Those who received oxytocin reported experiencing more positive emotions during meditation, including awe, gratitude, hope, inspiration, interest, love, and serenity.

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Oxytocin did not affect all participants equally, though. Its effect on spirituality was stronger among people with a particular variant of the CD38 gene, a gene that regulates the release of oxytocin from hypothalamic neurons in the brain.

Van Cappellen cautions that the findings should not be over-generalized. First of all, there are many definitions of spirituality, she notes.

“Spirituality is complex and affected by many factors,” Van Cappellen says. “However, oxytocin does seem to affect how we perceive the world and what we believe.”

The results appear online in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Funding came from the National Center of Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the National Institute of Nursing Research, which is supported by the National Institutes of Health Common Fund, which is managed by the National Institutes of Health Office of the Director/Office of Strategic Coordination.

Source: Duke University

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Source: Futurity