Nourishing Your Heart
For our ancestors, the world was a worrisome place filled with grueling physical challenges, like starvation, long migrations, and the task of taking-down large animals. To effectively cope with this stress, the body developed the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol. Unfortunately, under prolonged exposure to stress, cortisol remains in the blood-stream, breaking down non-essential organs and tissues to supply needed blood sugar and protect vital organs. The result? Chronic anxiety, weight gain, high blood pressure, and weakened immunity, all related to heart disease.
Today, our biggest stressors aren't related to hunting woolly mammoths, but involve powerful emotional concerns. We face stress in the form of job loss, financial worries, divorce, grief over the loss of a loved one...or simply the constant grind of our daily commute. While these are not physical threats, our body has only one, automatic response: more cortisol.
Fortunately, the body has also developed a hormonal mechanism for countering stress and nourishing the heart--oxytocin.
The Bonding Hormone
Oxytocin eliminates the harmful effects of cortisol and leads to profound improvements in wellbeing in a very short time. It lowers anxiety, reduces fear, makes us feel more relaxed, builds trust, increases empathy and the feeling of being "in-tune" with others. It is the neurochemical that creates a deep bond between mother and child, nurtures the glow of romantic love between two people, and creates common cause among groups of people with similar interests--from afternoon socials to bowling leagues to political movements. That's why oxytocin has been nicknamed "the bonding hormone."
Research has shown that numerous activities produce oxytocin: play, joining a support group, yoga, exercise, massage, caring for a pet, worship. One of the most important ways is by developing relationships that are caring and kind-hearted. We produce it naturally when we love, are loved, nurture another, give selflessly, or engage in affectionate touch.
Oxytocin is a very unique neurochemical for another reason--the more we make, the stronger our body and mind respond to it. Our nerve cells actually sprout more oxytocin receptors, making them more sensitive to its effects. It grows easier and easier to be loving. Oxytocin is probably the neurochemical basis for the Biblical adage that it is "more blessed to give than to receive." With focused awareness and determination we can mindfully direct our behavior toward the maintenance of this beneficial hormone.