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Hormone may be the secret to beating stress

By Avis Favaro, CTV News medical specialist

It's a provocative question: Which sex handles stress better?

Shelley Taylor, a University of California at Los Angeles psychology professor and the author of The Tending Instinct, says women may have a built-in hormonal advantage when it comes to dealing with chronic stress.

"Women are more likely to deal with stress socially by calling people up on the phone to talk to friends," Taylor said.

Taylor's theory is based on more than 200 studies by other researchers, work that points to the hormone oxytocin.

"The propensity to seek others out, to communicate, to keep others in close proximity, none of this seems to be learned behavior," Taylor told CTV. "We call it 'tend or defend' — the way women turn to each other for moral support in times of stress.

"And oxytocin, we believe, is a player."

Oxytocin is a hormone produced in the brain. It often has calming effects. It's associated with typically female behaviors like nurturing. It's also secreted during touch and massage, and has been shown to stimulate bonding among some animal groups.

"Warm contacts seem to increase oxytocin, and oxytocin increases the need for those kinds of contact. So they feed back into each other and so social contact itself is often very soothing," Taylor said.

Men respond to stress, generally, with something called fight or flight response — blood pressure goes up, and they rev into action. Or they back off, withdraw into isolation, according to Dr. Mark Berber, a psychiatrist at Markham General Hospital.

"When I ask men who are distressed if they have a friend, a bud they can talk to, I am continuously surprised how few have one good friend," Berber said. "When I ask women, more often they say yes — I have a friend I can talk to."

Men do produce oxytocin. But its effects are largely cancelled by the male hormone testosterone.

"Men do bond, but they don't bond in as intimate a way as women do," Berber said. "And they need to learn to be a bit more expressive."

But research in animals suggests that adding oxytocin to the body could prove a potent anti-stress treatment. It could be used to promote relaxation, friendliness and nurturing abilities.

Studies in Stockholm suggest that daily oxytocin injections, in both male and female rats, decrease blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol. It may also improve relaxation and cut down on fearfulness.

While they work on the oxytocin solution, scientists think men might just learn from women on how human bonding may be an important and often-overlooked stress-buster.

"Researchers are saying this is interesting," Taylor said. "Why has it taken us so long to realize that women are more social in dealing with stress, and discovering the biochemical reasons why."


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