A newly released study out of South Korea shows evidence that love, or rather the “love hormone” oxytocin, which is released during kissing, breastfeeding, childbirth and sex, can reduce obsessive thoughts of food and weight gain in people suffering from anorexia. The disorder, formally dubbed anorexia nervosa, is a very difficult one to treat since there is no drug yet on the market which can reduce the suffering of the affected. But if this “love” hormone can cure or at least affect the course of anorexia, a new era might have begun in the understanding and treatment of this painful affliction.
Anorexia affects millions of people in the U.S. alone, with one in 200 women afflicted with the disorder, and with ten to fifteen percent of anorexia and bulimia sufferers being male. Eating disorders are considered the most deadly of mental illnesses, with five to ten percent of anorexics dying in a ten year period and 18 to 20 percent of sufferers dying in a twenty year period. With complications including heart trouble and suicide, statistics cite that only 30 to 40 percent of anorexics recover from the disorder.
The mortality rate for anorexia is 12 times higher than that of all other causes of death combined for females aged 15 to 24, and it is the third most common chronic illness in teens.
With numbers like these, any treatment with a possibility of aiding sufferers of this disorder is to be hailed as a promising entrant. The new study, published jointly by British and South Korean authors in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, is such a ray of hope. Can ‘love’ cure anorexia?
In the study, 31 participants were given a nasal spray containing the feel-good hormone oxytocin. Such nasal sprays have previously been linked to positive effects on social anxieties and possibly on autism symptoms. In this experiment, after applying the spray the participants were asked to look at pictures of food, flabby thighs and bellies, and in a related study, at pictures of people wearing expressions of anger, happiness and disgust. In these two studies, participants who had just been exposed to the nasal spray reacted less strongly to the food and ‘flab’ photos, and also reacted less to the images indicating social disgust.
The lead author on both studies, Professor Youl-Ri Kim of Seoul’s Inje University, summarized that exposure to the oxytocin spray, which would be quickly inhaled and affect the brain with little delay, has been shown to reduce the participants’ unconscious tendencies to focus on subject matter relating to food, fat, weight, and the disgust of others in society. Since anorexia is a mental illness characterized by obsessive need to control food intake and body fat, and is considered to be caused in part by social stigma, this study gives hope that there might finally be a treatment to reduce these obsessive thoughts in anorexia sufferers.
One of the British authors of the study, Professor Janet Treasure of King’s College in London, elaborates that people who suffer from anorexia deal with a wide range of interconnected social difficulties which in the end manifest in eating disorders. Eating disorders in turn are continually fed by these social difficulties and the sufferers’ perceptions of their social situations.
The interconnected nature of the disorder makes it difficult to treat, as counseling to alleviate the social aspect of the disorder often has little effect on the chemical events going on in the brain. As well, sufferers are often so low on nutrients that the brain cannot register the effects of counseling. Previous to now there has been no pharmacological component to treatment for anorexia and other eating disorders. The reactions the study’s participants had to oxytocin shows that the ‘love’ hormone might be the first step on the road to a cure for anorexia.
Treasure cautions that wider trials are needed, and that the effects of oxytocin nasal spray should be studied on a more diverse pool of subjects before the results can be fully trusted. But she calls the hormone’s effects on the negative emotions of anorexia sufferers “hugely exciting” and seems cautiously optimistic about the spray’s potential as a treatment for anorexia. The question of whether love can cure eating disorders like anorexia nervosa is a woolly one; but the feel-good hormone that humans secrete during loving activities has been proven to be a good candidate for treating the illness.
By Kat Turner