In addition to known reproductive and social affiliation functions, oxytocin (OT) has been identified as a cardiovascular hormone. OT synthesis and receptors are found in cardiac and vascular tissue. Animal studies suggest that OT activates an 'anti-stress' response that reduces cardiovascular and neuroendocrine stress reactivity. We tested 28 early postpartum mothers, obtaining multiple blood samples for OT, the sympathetic marker, norepinephrine (NE), and the lactation hormone, prolactin, while monitoring their cardiovascular responses to two stressors: public speaking and forehead cold pressor. Although plasma OT did not increase reliably from pre-stress levels during stressors, greater overall OT level was related to greater vasodilation and cardiac stroke volume responses to both tasks, to reduction in heart rate to the cold pressor, as well as to lower plasma NE and higher prolactin levels. In contrast, higher NE was linked to increases in heart rate and decreases in stroke volume. These data support a cardioprotective role for OT, which may influence the magnitude and hemodynamic determinants of cardiovascular stress responses.
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