Can Stress Be Healing? Resiliency, Body Wisdom, and Oxytocin

by Dr Mahalia Freed, ND

Yes, I have come to believe that stress can be healing. Your body knows what to do. Even in the midst of true health crisis, we retain the ability heal. The wisdom within our bodies, and our innate capacity to remain in and return to balanced health, is incredible. It deserves highlighting, and celebrating.

 

Have you ever read an article, or been to a lecture about stress and health, and left feeling even more stressed afterwards, as the consequences of stress on your body sound so dire? Yeah. I have given those lectures. It turns out that there was a crucial missing piece in the oft-cited “facts” of stress increasing risk of everything from ulcers to heart attacks, high blood pressure to depression, hives to infertility. I would like to share some of this missing information today, and leave you with an empowering and uplifting message about resilience and connection in response to stress.

 

Oxytocin the Connector

Oxytocin is famous as the hormone of bonding, as it is released in high concentrations when people are breast-feeding. It is also released by the mere presence of a baby, whether you are breast-feeding or not, as well as with hugging, and with regular massage.

Oxytocin is a POSITIVE STRESS HORMONE. It counteracts the effects of cortisol in some incredible ways. Firstly, it is released during the stress response. Oxytocin is so calming, and so important for emotional regulation, that it is being investigated as a treatment for people with difficulty in emotional regulation, such as in borderline personality disorder. It helps us feel more emotionally stable, and eases anxiety. As well, oxytocin is a hormone of connection. It actually encourages us to reach out and ask for help, or reach out and connect with others in our situation.

 

There is body wisdom, building in a way to help us through stress with social support. Importantly, oxytocin is released when you both give and receive support. According to health psychologist and researcher, Dr Kelly McGonigal, people who help others in their community are less likely to die, given the same high amount of stress and its known negative health effects, than people who don’t reach out to others.

 

Oxytocin Heals a Broken Heart

Oxytocin is more than just a feel-good intimacy hormone. It also directly counteracts some of the inflammatory damage associated with stress. It is anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and it helps keep our blood vessels relaxed (and our blood pressure normal). It has been shown to have a healing effect on atherosclerotic arteries, and it stimulates stem cells to produce new heart muscle cells, mitigating any heart-related stress effects. Did you catch that? Oxytocin actually helps regenerate damaged heart cells. Wow. How amazing is that? Just when you need it, when you are in the midst of a physiological stress response with its corresponding increased heart rate and increased pressure on the vascular system, there is the wisdom of the body giving you the protection you require.

 

In her June 2013 TEDx talk, Dr Kelly McGonigal puts this way: “Your body has a built in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection”

 

Isn’t that beautiful?

 

Our bodies truly do have the capacity to heal themselves.

 

Immune-Boosting Oxytocin

 

Another area where oxytocin plays a role is in the immune system: Numerous studies have found that wounds take longer to heal in the presence of psychological stress – be it academic pressure as a university student, or the demands of being a caretaker for someone with Alzheimer’s disease. The reason for this is that cortisol selectively suppresses the immune system. In lab studies, anti-inflammatory oxytocin improves wound healing, and decreases ulceration in colitis. Again, here is our innate body wisdom, stepping in to take care of us when we need it.

 

We are so supported.

 

No matter what is happening in your life right now, remember that you are being taken care of by your very physiology. And to help maintain good health, choose some fun ways to boost your oxytocin production. See the list below for ideas.

 

Top 10 Ways to Increase Your Oxytocin, Naturally:

1)    Listen to soothing music.

2)    Sing with others

3)    Dance with others

4)    Cuddle, hug, hold a baby

5)    Have sex with yourself and/or others

6)    Treat yourself to some therapeutic massage or shiatsu

7)    Gaze into a loved one’s eyes

8)    Connect with a friend

9)    Participate in a club, charity, or community group

10) Enjoy a delicious & leisurely meal

 

References

 

Carter, CS & Porges SW.The biochemistry of love: an oxytocin hypothesis.

EMBO reports. 2013; 14(1): 12-16

 

Çetinel et al. Oxytocin treatment alleviates stress-aggravated colitis by a

receptor-dependent mechanism. Regulatory Peptides. 2010; 160: 146152

 

Detillion C.E. et al. Social facilitation of wound healing. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2004; 29: 1004–1011

 

Ditzen et al. Effects of different kinds of couple interaction on cortisol and heart rate responses to stress in women. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2007; 32: 565574

 

Ebrecht et al. Perceived stress and cortisol levels predict speed of wound healing in healthy male adults. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2004; 29: 798–809

 

Gamer, M. and Buchel, C. Oxytocin specifically enhances valence-dependent parasympathetic responses.  Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2012; 37: 87—93

 

Grewen K and Light K. Plasma oxytocin is related to lower cardiovascular and

sympathetic reactivity to stress. Biol Psychol. 2011 July; 87(3): 340–349

 

Gutkowska, J. and Jankowski, M. Oxytocin Revisited: Its Role in Cardiovascular Regulation. Journal of Neuroendocrinology. 2012; 24: 599–608

 

IsHak et al. Oxytocin role in enhancing well-being: A literature review. Journal of Affective Disorders 2011; 130: 19

 

Lee et al. Oxytocin: The great facilitator of life. Progress in Neurobiology. 2009; 88: 127–151

 

Light et al. More frequent partner hugs and higher oxytocin levels are linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate in premenopausal women. Biological Psychology. 2005; 69: 5–21

 

McGonigal, K. How to make stress your friend. TED Talk, TED Global, June 2013. Accessed online, Sept 2013 at http://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend.html

 

Moghimian, N. et al. The effect of acute stress exposure on ischemia and reperfusion injury in rat heart: Role of oxytocin. Stress. July 2012; 15(4): 385–392

 

Nilson, U. Soothing music can increase oxytocin levels during bed rest after open-heart surgery: a randomised control trial. Journal of Clinical Nursing. 2009; 18: 2153–2161.

 

Norman et al. Oxytocin increases autonomic cardiac control: Moderation by loneliness. Biological Psychology. 2011; 86: 174–180

 

Quirin M. et al. Oxytocin buffers cortisol responses to stress in individuals with impaired emotion regulation abilities. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2011; 36: 898—904

 

Simeon et al. Oxytocin administration attenuates stress reactivity in borderline personality disorder: A pilot study. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2011; 36:s 1418—1421

 

Smith, A.S.  and Wang, Z. Salubrious effects of oxytocin on social stress-induced deficits. Horm Behav. 2012 March; 61(3): 320–330

 

Szeto et al. Oxytocin attenuates NADPH-dependent superoxide activity and IL-6 secretion in macrophages and vascular cells. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2008; 295: E1495–E1501

 

Tops et al. Cortisol-induced increases of plasma oxytocin levels predict decreased immediate free recall of unpleasant words. Frontiers in Psychiatry. May 2012; 3(43): 1-5

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