A small study carried out by researchers in the UK and South Korea has been seized on by the media as evidence that oxytocin nasal spray could even be used as a treatment for anorexia, alongside other possible medical uses such as the treatment of autism.
However, the official website of the British NHS (national health service) urges caution. Although the study appeared to find that oxytocin nasal spray did have an effect in reducing powerful emotional responses to body image and food, it is far too early to say whether long term effects would be sufficient to form the basis of a new treatment for a complex psychological illness such as anorexia.
This story involved the media’s favourite hormone, oxytocin which, depending on what pop-science source you read, has been dubbed as the “love”, “cuddle” or “kissing” hormone, as it is associated with intense emotions (both positive and negative).
The study found that 31 South Korean women with anorexia given an intranasal spray containing the hormone oxytocin paid less attention to images of food and fatter body shapes, but not to other weight-related images, 45 minutes later. Oxytocin had no effect on how much fruit juice the women could drink at the end of the study.
It is at best unclear whether these short term effects would lead to any improvement in the symptoms of anorexia. The results also may not be indicative of what would be found in a more diverse and larger group of people with anorexia.
This is far from convincing evidence that oxytocin could offer a treatment or “cure” for anorexia as implied by the headlines.
The Daily Mail reports that researchers are using oxytocin nasal spray to treat women with interstitial cystitis, or chronic inflammation of the bladder wall. The trial is based on the observation that breast feeding women (who have naturally raised levels of oxytocin) often have cystitis symptoms reduced. Those behind the trial at the University of Alabama believe that oxytocin has analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects.
According to researchers, spending just 20 seconds a day hugging your partner will be enough to increase the level of oxytocin in your body and help improve the health of your heart! The psychologist Dr. Karen Grewen claims that..
“greater partner support is linked to higher Oxytocin levels for both men and women. However, the importance of oxytocin and its potentially cardio- protective effects may be greater for women”.
A doctor has warned that social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace are reducing the amount of time that people spend in real face-to-face contact with others, possibly leading to an increase in serious health risks such as cancer or dementia.
Writing in Biologist, the journal of the Institute of Biology, Dr. Aric Sigman references the importance of oxytocin – ‘the cuddle chemical’, in how our bodies and minds respond to social interaction. Apparently, the hormonal changes (including production of oxytocin) and other chemical reactions going on inside our bodies are less when interacting ‘virtually’ such as on social networking sites or via e-mail.
As readers of this blog will know, the production of oxytocin in the body has been linked to a reduction in stress levels, particularly through it’s relationship to cortisol, a key stress hormone. If less face-to-face contact means less oxytocin, it’s not implausible to speculate that substituting real social interaction for the virtual sort, might indeed be damaging to one’s health.
I wonder if Dr. Sigman would consider communication via webcam might count a little more as ‘real’ social interraction. Also, what about the many people suffering from social anxiety problems who find too much real interraction to be damagingly stressful? It’s also interesting to note that several years ago, Dr. Sigman apparently also warned that watching television for just a few minutes a day might damage brain cells and lead to dementia. Nethertheless, the Doctor’s claim, and its wide exposure in today’s headlines, is another example of how oxytocin is becoming firmly associated with social and physical well-being.