Does Oxytocin Affect Your Mental Health?

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Oxytocin has been on a joy ride for the past two decades, ever since animal studies first linked the hormone to bonding between mother and newborn, as well as between mating adults.

Dubbed the “cuddle” or “love” hormone by the popular press, oxytocin has earned attention for its role in mental health, specifically depression, autism, eating disorders, and anxiety.

What Is Oxytocin?

Oxytocin

Oxytocin is a natural peptide hormone that is produced in the hypothalamus and stored and released in the posterior pituitary during physical touch and during pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding.

Oxytocin is commonly referred to as “the bonding hormone” for its effects on physical touch between two people—two people who are usually in some kind of romantic relationship.

This bonding hormone is also central between mother and baby, hence why skin-to-skin contact is extremely important at birth. Physical acts such as holding hands, hugging, massaging, and kissing stimulate the release of oxytocin.

History

Oxytocin was first discovered in 1909 and it was thought to mostly influence a mother’s labor contractions during birth and milk letdown during breastfeeding, tightening the maternal bond between mom and baby.

In the 1990s, studies were performed on prairie voles and results found that giving them a dose of oxytocin resulted in the formation of a bond with their future mate. Since then, work on oxytocin has exploded in both animals and humans.

Researchers, scientists, and doctors examined not only the specifics of how oxytocin works in the brain, but also its influence on behavior in animals and humans, including bonding, trust, anxiety, and social understanding which has metamorphosed into the relationship between oxytocin and mental health.

Oxytocin Reduces Body Image Fear in Anorexia Patients

Individuals with anorexia nervosa, a well-known eating disorder defined by the inability to maintain a minimally normal weight, an intense fear of weight gain, extreme dietary habits that prevent weight gain, and a disturbance in the perception of body shape, have shrunken, starved and stressed brains.

According to studies, individuals with anorexia nervosa have lower levels of oxytocin compared to individuals without an eating disorder. They also have malfunctioning oxytocin receptors in the brain, therefore inhibiting the actions of oxytocin.

These abnormalities in oxytocin result in irregularities in social functioning. Social functioning plays a large underlying role in the development of anorexia nervosa. Isolation, low self-esteem, the desire to fit in, and the yearning for attachment are all known underlying social triggers for the development of anorexia nervosa.

Research Studies

Two studies on how oxytocin can potentially treat anorexia nervosa were published in the journals Psychoneuroendocrinology and PLOS ONE. 

In the Psychoneuroendocrinology study, individuals with anorexia nervosa were administered intranasal oxytocin and were asked to look at images of different high- and low-calorie foods, weight scales, and thin and overweight people.

A visual probe was used to record the time it took to identify and process the images. The individuals showed significant reductions in the amount of attention they gave toward eating-related stimuli and toward negative body shape stimuli after they were administered intranasal oxytocin compared to the time they spent viewing the images before they were given oxytocin.

The PLOS study administered oxytocin to the same individuals and recorded their reactions to images of negative facial expressions, such as disgust and anger. After taking a dose of oxytocin, individuals with anorexia nervosa were less likely to focus on the disgusted and angry faces. They were also less likely to avoid looking at angry faces and simply became vigilant toward them. 

These research studies show that oxytocin has potential to reduce unconscious tendencies to focus on food, body shape and negative emotions in individuals with anorexia nervosa.

Oxytocin and Alcohol Abuse

Oxytocin has been shown to decrease consumption, drug-seeking behavior, and physical withdrawal side effects associated with alcohol and other drugs of abuse.

In a study using oxytocin and its effect on motivation, researchers hypothesized that oxytocin could normalize the pathological brain changes that occur due to alcohol use disorder. Researchers specifically looked at the effect of oxytocin on the amygdala.

Results of the experiment showed that oxytocin successfully blocked excess drinking in alcohol-dependent lab rats. The drug did not show the same effect in normal, non-alcohol-dependent rats.

Oxytocin worked by blocking the signals of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), where alcohol and certain other drugs of abuse are known to act on.

Oxytocin and Autism

Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by deficits in social communication and interaction as well as restrictive and repetitive patterns of behaviors.

Researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine enrolled 32 children with autism who were randomly assigned to receive an intranasal oxytocin spray or placebo twice daily for four weeks.

Among the children who received the oxytocin, those with the lowest oxytocin at the beginning (baseline oxytocin) showed the greatest improvements in their social interaction.

There has been research showing that oxytocin increases trust and aids in social bonding. Now researchers are now trying to apply these findings, and are investigating oxytocin as a treatment for mental health disorders.

Researchers believe that oxytocin has a unique ability to impact our brain wiring and could potentially help in disorders such as schizophrenia, addiction, eating disorders, PTSD, and autism.

Larger studies need to be done in order to understand the specific implications, side effects, and efficacy of the use of oxytocin in mental health disorders.

Researchers and mental health experts hope that oxytocin will ultimately play a powerful role in the treatment of mental health disorders, but further research is needed.

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