‘Love hormone’ oxytocin may help treat patients with anorexia

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A nasal spray of oxytocin – often referred to as the “love hormone” – may help anorexic patients to stop fixating on negative images of body shapes and foods, Counsel and Heal reported.

Characterized by long periods of fasting, anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that affects millions of people worldwide. While the disorder typically revolves around food and body image, patients with this condition also experience social difficulties, as well as anxiety and negative emotions.

Oxytocin acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain and plays an important role in human bonding, intimacy and sexual reproduction. Some studies have revealed oxytocin’s ability to lower social anxiety in patients with autism, prompting researchers to see how the hormone affected patients with anorexia.

In the first of two studies, published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, researchers analyzed 31 anorexic patients and 33 healthy control patients.  The participants were asked to look at images of high and low calorie foods, fat and thin body shapes, and weights and scales.  They were then given either a dose of oxytocin or a placebo from a nasal spray and asked to look at the images again.

The purpose of the experiment was to examine how fast the patients identified the images.  Previously, anorexic patients have been found to focus on images they deem “negative” – such as fat body parts and high calorie foods.  But after being exposed to oxytocin, the anorexics reduced their “attention bias” and were less likely to focus on these pictures.

The second study, published in PLOS ONE, utilized the same participants and experimental structure from the first study. But this time, the patients were shown images of facial expressions, such as anger, disgust, or happiness.  The anorexic patients were less likely to focus on the disgusted faces after receiving oxytocin treatment.

"Our research shows that oxytocin reduces patients' unconscious tendencies to focus on food, body shape, and negative emotions such as disgust,” lead author of both studies Prof Youl-Ri Kim, from Inje University in Seoul, South Korea, said in a news release. “There is currently a lack of effective pharmacological treatments for anorexia. Our research adds important evidence to the increasing literature on oxytocin treatments for mental illnesses, and hints at the advent of a novel, ground-breaking treatment option for patients with anorexia.”

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