How do you feel after a hunt? Exhilarated? Hungry? Just plain tired? According to a study by researchers at UC Santa Barbara, male hunters returning from the field may experience a sudden rise in oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone.” This nickname is somewhat misleading since oxytocin not only promotes sexual arousal, but also a wide range of other benefits such as increasing sociability, reducing stress, reducing pain, healing wounds, and there is even some evidence of the hormone acting as anti-depressant. Overall, scientists say the hormone may make hunters more empathetic, which helps in allowing them to reintegrate with their families, share a meal, and “calm down” after the hunt.
The study, which was recently published in the Royal Society’s Biology Letters, followed a group of subsistence hunters in Boliva called the Tsimane. Researchers accompanied the Tsimane men on the hunt and routinely collected saliva samples from the volunteers, which allowed the scientists to keep track of the hunters’ hormone levels during and after the trip. According to the researchers, increased oxytocin made the hunters kinder, more generous, and more likely to share their harvest. The hormone also appears to tap into certain male nurturing behaviors, which allowed hunters to more easily reconnect with their families after a long absence.
“These men are coming home, they’re finished with work for the day, and they’re about to eat and share food,” study co-author and anthropologist Adrian Jaeggi told the UC Santa Barbara Current. “So the need to be social coincides with the need to regenerate and it would make sense for the same hormones to facilitate both functions.”
Hunting naturally increases testosterone, especially if a hunt is successful. Researchers found that the higher a hunter’s testosterone is raised, the higher his oxytocin level will surge when he returns. In many ways, this allows the hunter to “sober up” from the negative effects of high testosterone levels. Although women are also affected by oxytocin, the study followed mostly male hunters.
“Testosterone, whatever the reason for the increase, is liable to make you more asocial, and that might not be a good thing when you’re coming home to your family and community,” Jaeggi told the Los Angeles Times. “Oxytocin on the other hand makes you more empathetic, which would be useful in a social context.”
A typical Tsimane hunt is a day-long affair lasting about nine hours. The length of the hunting trip can have a big effect on the level of oxytocin upon return, which the researchers say supports the idea that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Jaeggi says that oxytocin levels also indicate how much a person values a loved one, and that the hormone is especially high around family, friends, and romantic partners.
Surprisingly, high levels of oxytocin have even been linked to alcohol tolerance. According to another study by the University of Sydney and the University of Regensburg, rats given a dose of oxytocin proved to be resistant to the lack of coordination caused by alcohol. The hormone is also believed to foster cooperation and trust in many animals.
The study’s researchers said they would continue working with the hormone, including its interaction with testosterone.
“Most researchers tend to look at oxytocin or testosterone one at a time,” said study co-author Ben Trumble. “But the endocrine system is really complex and interconnected, so understanding how changes in testosterone impacts oxytocin and vice versa is really important.”