I've become fascinated with the connection between everyday emotions, intense feelings of love or a lack of connection, or even how something like the severity of emotional trauma can affect our health - specifically our hormones and blood sugar (which are very closely related but for some reason disassociated in most areas of medicine).
In my practice, the need to address mental before physical health has become the norm rather than the exception.
I've had clients who seem to be eating the perfect diet, regularly work out, and sleep fairly well but just aren't getting the results they'd like - they feel "stuck".
As I dive deeper into the client's history or begin to ask questions about where they feel connected in their community or relationship, I find that the issue is usually a lack of love or a deep past hurt that needs to be addressed.
It seems crazy that something like that could affect our physical health, right? I thought so too. But here's the science behind why something like a lack of connection could be the reason behind the plateau in your health journey or potentially even wreaking hormonal havoc in your body.
When we experience the emotions of love, closeness, or comfort, we release the hormone, oxytocin. It's nicknamed the "feel good" hormone, it's what enables trust and can bind people together. It can be released when cuddling, giving birth, and during lactation or intimacy.
Well, in a world where we use technology for almost everything, people are starting to disconnect. We work longer hours because we can bring work home with us and really never "stop" working, therefore skyrocketing stress, lack of sleep, and frankly less quality time with your family and community. We can order our groceries, clothes, pets, really anything, online. We can know almost everything about someone based on their social media without ever even talking to them! We can even date online...the list goes on.
Although our world seems to be so focused on efficiency and comfort, it's ironic that we seem to have *less* time than ever before. In reality, we've just made it so that we can get more things done in a day because we don't know how to disconnect from our to-do list and our phone and reconnect to the people, nature, and world around us.
This increase in stress and lack of connection in our everyday life can lead to blood sugar issues - in extreme cases, even diabetes and obesity. Why? Because during times of stress, we have a constant influx of adrenaline and sugar rushing through our body. Overwhelming our system, our blood sugar raises and we store most of the excess sugar as fat.
When we have a sense of belonging, peace, connection, love, etc. we release oxytocin and usually have a decrease in emotional stress (there is also a reduction in adrenaline and cortisol production when there is an increase in oxytocin). This is great when it comes to blood sugar regulation because studies have shown that oxytocin plays a role in insulin production and sensitivity. In addition, recent studies have shown an increase in oxytocin can also reduce your chances of becoming obese - not only because it can help reduce blood sugar but because it is also one of the hormones that regulates satiety.
Interestingly enough, did you know that overeating can actually release oxytocin as well (resulting in emotional eating)? Yes! This is how:
Oxytocin is manufactured in the hypothalamus in the brain. It is then released to the pituitary gland, and finally the vagus nerve, which is connected to several organs in the body. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, your body will start to increase the production of oxytocin. So, when we overeat, our stomach becomes distended and that can actually physically stimulate the vagus nerve, releasing oxytocin, which can then bring the association between food and comfort. A viscious cycle begins.
A connection between oxytocin and blood pressure has been studied as well. We see that as oxytocin increases in the body, our blood pressure lowers. I think it's interesting to again think of the possible association between the epidemic of high blood pressure in our society and the simultaneous consistent increase in stress and lack of connection.
Oxytocin can also increase the production of IgA, an immune system immunoglobulin that helps fight off infection. Pretty amazing.
Vasopressin is another hormone associated with love, touch, and sexuality. It can also be associated with aggression or the territorial behavior that we often see manifested in males. Oxytocin and vasopressin are directly associated so when one increases in the body, the other decreases. It's a cycle (this is true of all hormones, all hormones affect all hormones - when looking at an imbalance in one hormone, we should always be thinking about how it's affecting the rest). An example of the cycle of oxytocin and vasopressin can be seen when a male first wants to defend and then protect. It contributes to the motivation in both procreation and protection.
There have now been studies to see if there is any correlation between autism and the reduction or lack of uptake in oxytocin. I mean it feels like the list just goes on and on.
Here are some natural ways to increase the production of oxytocin in your body (as there are other options than just giving birth, being intimate, and lactating hehe).
We have small egg-shaped receptors in the skin (called exterorecepters) that are connected to the vagus nerve through our nervous system, which is what makes us so sensitive to touch (and remember, stimulating the vagus nerve releases oxytocin).
See that really cute picture of my puppy at the top of this post? Yes, cuddling with your pet is a form of "touch" and probably why there are so many emotional care animals today.
You could also just go get a massage! My clients love it when I put "get a massage once a month" on their required protocol. But it truly does help with your health! Are you starting to see why?
Studies show that people who get at least 8 hours of sleep have more oxytocin than those who don't. They do not fully understand why this is, but there is a strong correlation.
Connecting Through Conversation
This is more common for women. Most women can increase their oxytocin levels just by having a conversation with another woman while making eye contact. I find that so incredible.
For men, it's been shown that holding an infant can increase their oxytocin levels - weird, right?!
A Healthy Gut
Our gastrointestinal system has its own enteroreceptor system. This is why we manufacture more serotonin (the feel-good/happy hormone) in the gut vs. the brain.
Blood Sugar Balance
By eating a diet rich in healthy fats and protein and void of refined carbohydrates and sugar, we can actually help our body create hormones (like oxytocin, serotonin, etc.) to be able to connect, feel safe, and have empathy.
Lessen Blue Light Exposure
Blue light is part of the visible light spectrum given off from screen devices. It can really off balance our vitamin D production just as it can interrupt healthy sleep cycles (or your circadian rhythm) after extended periods of use (which I would argue that everyone is using a screen device most of the day) and especially in the evening. This is important for both oxytocin and serotonin production as vitamin D and healthy sleep cycles are crucial to this process.
Not to mention blue light can cause damage to our retina and is implicated in the development of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), aka aging.
Reduce Environmental Toxicity
This is not always something that we can 100% control, but there are factors that we can. For example, pesticides and PFOA's (which are in nonstick & waterproof products - even rain gear) can really affect our hormones. How? Because they can actually mimic hormones in our body and throw everything off balance. So try to always purchase organic when possible and cook in cast iron, stainless steel, glass, or copper (ideally copper on the outside for good heat conduction and stainless steel on the inside to avoid copper toxicity).
In addition, artificial fragrances, room sprays, cleaning supplies, etc. can wreak havoc on our blood sugar hormones, metabolism, and sex hormones through our olfactory system. The olfactory system (what we use to sense the world around us through smell) is actually one of the first steps in digestion, which can start to trigger and mediate different blood sugar hormones.
Finally, our personal care products continue to increase in xenoestrogens - another type of hormone mimicker. As women, we put an average of 14 personal care products on our bodies before we walk out the door in the morning.
Beautycounter can be one of your solutions as they have an amazing line of personal care products (including skin care, make up, baby products, shampoo, etc.) that have clean and safe ingredients.
Freedom Deoderant is my favorite safe deoderant that actually WORKS.
All that to say, it is clear that our hormonal balance can be affected by our emotions and even a lack of connection, but it doesn't stop there - it's a two way street. It's not only based on mental health, but also balancing our physical health through a properly prepared nutrient dense diet and safe personal and cleaning products that we expose ourselves to. We can't only focus on one and not the other.
So, go show yourself some self-love today and get a massage, prepare a tasty healthy meal tonight, and start to swap out some toxic products in your home. This will ultimately improve your metabolic system, and therefore your weight, appetite, and overall health.