Anorexia nervosa is an illness that has been notoriously challenging and difficult to treat. It affects 1 in 150 teenage girls in the UK, and is also a leading cause of deaths linked to mental health. People who suffer from anorexia struggle with body shape, body image, and healthy eating habits; as well as social difficulties including anxiety and hypersensitivity. Recently, however, a study has revealed a link between oxytocin and anorexia that may provide new and improved pathways toward a more effective treatment for the disease.
Answers may lie in the “cuddle drug”
Oxytocin (also known as the “love hormone,”) is a hormone that is released by the brain’s pituitary gland when people bond socially, including sexual relations and childbirth. The drug has been shown to lower social anxiety levels in people with autism and other psychiatric disorders.
Two breakthrough studies
The study involved 31 anorexia patients and 33 healthy control patients who were either given an oxytocin dose via nasal spray, or a placebo dose. They were then tasked with looking at a sequence of images related to food, body shape, and weight. Researchers then measured how quickly the patients identified each image. It was found that the images were more quickly identified if the patient focused more on the negative images than the positive images. The same test was administered before and after the dose of oxytocin or placebo.
After taking the oxytocin, those diagnosed with anorexia reduced their attention bias toward the negative images. The more the anorexia patients suffered from communication problems, the stronger the effect the oxytocin had on them.
A second study involving the same participants administered a similar test, but with images of facial expressions like disgust, anger, or happiness. After being dosed with oxytocin, patients were less likely to focus on the negative faces.
The exciting results
The results indicate that the hormone serves to reduce a patient’s unconscious propensity to focus on negative body image and negative emotions. Since there is currently a serious lack of anorexia treatments, this research provides important data on furthering therapy advancements utilizing oxytocin in the research and treatment of mental illnesses. Even though the results are promising, the next step for the researchers is to conduct larger trials.