Feeling connected to someone is actually driven by physiological responses in the body. Oxytocin, “the bonding hormone,” is the perfect example of how nature and nurture collide. Oxytocin is famous for its romantic effects of love, attraction, infatuation and affection. This natural neuropeptide is produced in the brain, specifically by the hypothalamus, and is released by the posterior pituitary. It is naturally released during labor, breast feeding and romantic physical connections such as hugging and kissing. Oxytocin sparks a “mother’s love” for her newborn, and that maternal love grows throughout the child’s life. Oxytocin and its receptor gene are also associated with trust, empathy and stress reduction.
Because of its impact as a “love potion,” researchers have set out to determine whether oxytocin could aid in psychological disorders such as schizophrenia, autism and depression. In fact, scientists have linked social and emotional developmental problems to abnormalities in the oxytocin system and its receptor gene. The impact of oxytocin on science and medicine could be huge as researchers endeavor to determine whether the hormone could be used to treat eating disorders.
Eating disorders with underlying psychiatric diagnoses
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), lists anorexia nervosa as an eating disorder “characterized by distorted body image and excessive dieting that leads to severe weight loss with a pathological fear of becoming fat.” Even though they weigh below the minimally normal level, people with anorexia perceive themselves as overweight and fear gaining weight. In addition to a distorted body image, this life-threatening condition also comes with other psychological disturbances, including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Anorexia is one of the most common eating disorders, a group that also includes bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder.
One cohort study found that individuals with eating disorders exhibit social challenges, such as isolation and interpersonal problems, before illness onset. Another study observed that almost half of the individuals with an eating disorder also had other psychiatric diagnoses and a family history of psychiatric disorders.
Currently, there is no pharmacologic treatment to cure anorexia nervosa. So how could this “love potion” help treat anorexia nervosa and the co-occurring psychological conditions that affect so many individuals worldwide?
Oxytocin reduces body image fear in patients with anorexia
Numerous studies have shown that people with anorexia have abnormal oxytocin levels and malfunctioning oxytocin receptors in their brain, both of which can cause impaired social functioning. Two studies, one in Psychoneuroendocrinology and another in PLoS One, demonstrated how oxytocin might possibly treat anorexia nervosa.
In the Psychoneuroendocrinology study, anorexic patients and control patients were instructed to look at pictures of healthy food, junk food, weight scales, thin people and overweight people, after they were given intranasal oxytocin. A visual probe recorded how quickly the patients identified and processed these images. The individuals with anorexia showed significant reductions in their attention to eating-related stimuli and to negative body-shape stimuli after they were given intransal oxytocin.
The PLOS One study also administered oxytocin to anorexic patients and control patients, and recorded their reactions to pictures of angry- and disgusted-looking faces. After taking a dose of oxytocin, the patients with anorexia focused less on the disgusted and angry pictures. This research indicates that oxytocin reduces anorexia patients’ unconscious focus on food, body shape and negative emotions. These findings could lead to a pharmacological treatment for anorexia nervosa: oxytocin.