Does Oxytocin Affect Your Mental Health?

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Oxytocin is a hormone that has garnered much attention recently for its role in mental health and bonding behaviors. Popular media has dubbed oxytocin the “love hormone.” There has also been a growing interest in its use as a treatment for various mental health conditions, including autism, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.  

This article explores oxytocin's potential effects and uses in treating mental disorders. It also discusses its history and how this hormone can affect bonding behaviors.

What Is Oxytocin?

Oxytocin

Oxytocin is a peptide hormone that functions as a neurotransmitter. It plays an important role in various functions, including pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, and reproduction. It is naturally produced by the body in a brain region known as the hypothalamus and secreted by the pituitary gland.

The hormone also plays an important role in human bonding, including the bonding that occurs in maternal and romantic relationships.

After a baby is born, skin-to-skin contact helps promote the production and release of oxytocin. This helps increase bonding between a mother and baby. In adult romantic relationships, physical contact—including hugging, massaging, kissing, and holding hands—contributes to the release of this bonding hormone.

History

The initial discovery of oxytocin occurred in 1909. The hormone was believed to primarily play a vital role in childbirth and post-partum bonding. Oxytocin influences labor contractions during birth, plays a part in milk let-down during breastfeeding and helps the mother and infant bond.

Animal studies conducted during the 1990s led to a greater understanding of how the hormone acted in the brain. It also revealed oxytocin's role in other functions such as anxiety, social relationships, trust, and bonding in romantic relationships. 

Such findings have increased the interest in the relationship between oxytocin and mental health. Since that time, there has been a dramatic increase in research on the effects of oxytocin in humans and animals.

Oxytocin and Love

Studies suggest that oxytocin levels are higher during the early stages of a new romantic relationship. It is released in response to physical contact, including sex, and higher oxytocin levels have been linked to more intense orgasms.

Research has also found that the release of oxytocin can help increase relationship-enhancing behaviors and emotions, including:

  • Communication
  • Empathy
  • Enhanced bonding
  • Eye gaze
  • Fidelity
  • Positive emotions and physical contact

Healthy romantic relationships can play a vital role in adults' mental and physical health. An inability to maintain intimate connections is associated with worse well-being. The release of oxytocin, prompted by affectionate touch, may promote and strengthen adult romantic connections, ultimately fostering better emotional health.

Oxytocin and Mental Health Conditions

Because oxytocin is connected to increased social bonding and trust, researchers have explored how it might be utilized to treat different mental disorders, including autism, addiction, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and PTSD.

Stress and Anxiety

One research review found that oxytocin could also positively impact feelings of anxiety and stress. When released in certain brain areas, the hormone can contribute to decreased anxiety and stress. It is also linked to increased relaxation and psychological stability.

It is important to note, however, that the effects of oxytocin might be context-dependent. The hormone may elevate your attention, so you notice specific environmental cues. For example, it may prime you to be more affected by positive cues, but it might also increase the salience of negative cues in high-stress situations.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by an inability to maintain normal body weight. People with the condition go to extreme lengths to lose weight and prevent weight gain. 

Evidence suggests that people who have anorexia have lower oxytocin levels compared to people who don't have an eating disorder. Not only are their hormone levels lower, but they also have malfunctioning oxytocin receptors, which impair the hormone's actions in their body.

The underlying factors that lead to anorexia are complex and vary from one person to the next. As with many mental illnesses, social triggers can play a role in causing the condition. Low levels of oxytocin may increase the likelihood that a person will be affected by triggers such as poor self-esteem and a desire to fit in with others.

Studies have found that the intranasal administration of oxytocin can potentially change unconscious tendencies, behaviors, and emotions related to food, body image, and negative emotions.

Autism 

Oxytocin may help improve social communication in children with autism. Autism is a developmental condition characterized by behaviors, communication, and social challenges. 

In one study, children with autism received either an intranasal oxytocin spray or a placebo twice daily for four weeks. The results indicated that the children treated with the oxytocin spray experienced significant improvements in their social interactions.

Alcohol Use

Oxytocin may also have potential as a treatment for alcohol use disorder. It works by blocking signals of the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter impacted by alcohol and other substances. 

Animal studies suggest that oxytocin can help mitigate some negative effects alcohol has on the brain. This can help reduce the motivation to consume alcohol, minimize physical withdrawal effects, and reduce drug-seeking behaviors.

Recap

In addition to its impact on childbirth and bonding, oxytocin may have a beneficial effect on symptoms of different mental disorders. More research is needed, but evidence suggests it may positively impact stress regulation, eating disorders, autism, and alcohol misuse.

A Word From Verywell

Because of oxytocin's ability to impact the brain, it has potential as a treatment for a range of conditions, including those that affect social communication, bonding, empathy, and trust. 

However, it is important to note that while it is promising, it is no panacea. Further research is needed to better understand how it may affect mental health.

13 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kristen Fuller, MD
Kristen Fuller is a physician, a successful clinical mental health writer, and author. She specializes in addiction, substance abuse, and eating disorders.