The Kissing Cure: Can the 'Love Hormone' Help Treat Anorexia?

A new study suggests that the hormone oxytocin may combat anorexia symptoms.

Can the "Love Hormone" Oxytocin Help People Combat Anorexia?
British and Korean scientists have published new research suggesting oxytocin can help sufferers of eating disorders like anorexia. (Photo: REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini)
Liana Aghajanian is TakePart's weekend editor. Her work has appeared in ForeignPolicy.com, BBC.com, Los Angeles Times, and TheAtlantic.com.

Twenty million women and 10 million men suffer from an eating disorder at some time in their lives, according to the National Eating Disorders organization, but a new study suggests that a hormone released during kissing could help beat anorexia, giving hope to sufferers of a difficult-to-treat illness.

Research published by British and Korean scientists suggests that oxytocin, often referred to as the “love hormone” that plays an important role in intimacy, childbirth, and maternal bonding, reduces the focus anorexic patients have on triggers that cause the disease in the first place.

Given the success of larger trials, the research could save the lives of those with anorexia, for which there is no pharmaceutical treatment.

Those who suffer from the disease often have a severely distorted body image, a restricted calorie intake, and an irrational fear of weight gain. Complications include serious hormonal changes, heart disease, seizures, loss of bone calcium, and organ failure. The mortality rate is 12 times higher than the death rate associated with all causes of death for females 15 to 24, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

In the studies published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology and the journal PLOS ONE, 31 participants with anorexia and 33 without were given oxytocin nasal spray treatment. They were then given a series of images of food and body shapes to look at while their reactions were tested.

The results showed that after taking oxytocin, anorexic patients reduced their focus on "negative" images of food and fat bodies.

Professor Youl-Ri Kim, who teaches at Inje University in Seoul, South Korea, and was involved in the study, told Reuters that the result “hints at the advent of a novel, ground-breaking treatment option for patients with anorexia.” 

This is welcome news for the estimated 8 million Americans with eating disorders and the people who love them: Nearly half of all U.S. residents know someone who suffers from one.

In addition to helping alleviate anorexia, oxytocin has also proved to have a positive impact on people with autism spectrum disorders. The first study of how oxytocin affects children's brains was published last November and showed that the "love hormone" used in a nasal spray similar to the anorexia study enhances brain function in autistic children.

 

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