The 'Love Hormone' Could Treat Anorexia

by Adrienne Vogt

A little love goes a long way. The so-called "love hormone" oxytocin could possibly treat anorexia, researchers say. Small-scale studies from British and Korean researchers suggest anorexic patients may be less likely to fixate on images of food and body shape after given a dose of oxytocin. Interestingly, the researchers also found that participants focused less on facial expressions showing disgust and anger after the hormone was administered.

Oxytocin is released naturally during sex, childbirth, and breastfeeding.

In the first study, published in the catchily-named journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, researchers gave a nasal spray of oxytocin to about 30 people diagnosed with anorexia, and 30 more who didn't have the eating disorder. They showed the participants images of high- and low-calorie foods, as well as different body types. After the spray was released, researchers found that anorexic patients didn'y fixate as much on the images they would normally label "negative."

The same people participated in the second study, which was published in PLOS ONE. In this trial, researchers noted patients' reactions to images of angry, disgusted, and happy facial images after being given a dose of oxytocin. The anorexic subjects were less prone to focus on the angry and disgusted pictures.

Leanne Thorndyke, of the eating-disorders organization Beat, told Web MD the research is promising.

What the latest research is telling us is that an eating disorder is much more hard wired and biologically based than was previously thought to be the case. Eating disorders are complex, and a number of risk factors need to combine to increase the likelihood that any one individual develops the condition."
We know that there is much that still needs to be understood about the biological basis for eating disorders. We are hopeful that this research will lead to a new, effective treatments being designed, but it is early days yet.

In the United States, it's estimated that 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from an eating disorder at some point in the lives. Funding for research is sorely lacking, with less than $1 allocated for each individual who struggles with an eating disorder. The effects of anorexia are devastating, and it has the highest death rate of any psychiatric disorder.

Could this type of treatment be expanded to include other disorders that focus on a person's perception of their self-worth, such as depression? It's a tantalizing possibility — instead of popping pills to make yourself feel better, you'd be able to inject a dose of a naturally occurring hormone. That may be a slippery slope, and certainly an unappealing possibility for Big Pharma, but it's a very interesting notion.