Is Oxytocin Too Good to Be True?

Is Oxytocin Too Good to Be True?

By Sally Chew 04/06/15

Oxytocin (and its silly-sounding online nasal sprays) could curb addiction withdrawal and stop you from wanting to drink so much in the first place.

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Of all the forces conspiring against you in the first hours and days of “quitting,” physical cravings may be the cruelest. Your body is in withdrawal, and either you soldier through, or pour yourself a whiskey.

That’s why there’s so much excitement in the recovery world lately about oxytocin. In human studies, a synthetic, inhalable version of the hormone seems to quell alcohol cravings. And it does this not by making people dependent on yet another drug (Ativan and Valium are the classic detox helpers) but by actually killing the urge. 

Oxytocin—not to be confused with the addictive painkiller OxyContin—may also encourage drinking restraint: Rats dosed with it opted to sip less beer. And last month, researchers reported that drunk rats given oxytocin immediately started acting sober, an odd discovery that hints at still more avenues for manipulating the brain chemistry of alcoholics.

Addiction science has arrived late to the oxytocin party, an exciting, if slightly over-hyped, celebration in recent years of research that suggests supplementing our own bodies’ supply of the “love hormone” might solve many of our peskiest human problems. 

What’s not in question is that oxytocin surges naturally during childbirth, breastfeeding and lovemaking—moments when our brains hope to foster trust, intimacy and social bonding—and that, in studies, the synthetic kind helps ease anxiety and soften intimate relationships. Oxytocin is also being tested now as a treatment for schizophrenia and autism. 

There has been some overpromising about this hormone, even charges of quackery. But rats, mice, and now humans are doing so well in alcohol studies that the market in over-the-counter oxytocin products, like Liquid Trust, is probably about to extend its reach—and not just to alcoholics. The brain mechanisms at play seem to apply to other addictions as well. 

Cort Pedersen, a psychiatry and neurobiology professor at the University of North Carolina, ran ads on local radio stations in the Raleigh-Durham area to enlist alcoholics for his 2012 oxytocin study. The main requirement was being able to show up at Pedersen’s laboratory practically hungover: Candidates had to have consumed six or more drinks every day for at least two weeks. They also needed to have been through detox before and endured two or more days of withdrawal symptoms—bad ones. 

Eleven subjects moved into the UNC facility for three days. They puffed a nasal spray twice a day—seven of them got oxytocin and four got a placebo—and in between, ranked their own symptoms on “craving scales” and spoke to Pedersen about how they felt. 

Pedersen, hardly prone to hyperbole after three decades in behavior research (and already familiar with oxytocin from testing it on schizophrenics), discovered a “staggeringly significant difference” between the two groups. 

He told me, “Most of the individuals who got oxytocin were just spontaneously saying things like, ‘I can’t believe how calm I feel. I’ve tried to stop on my own repeatedly, repeatedly. By this point, even like 24 hours after my last drink, I just have to drink again, and now I just…don’t need it.’“ Four of the seven who took oxytocin didn’t need any Ativan at all. 

It was a very small study, but the results have since been reproduced.

The best way to understand why a mothering hormone makes such good addiction medicine is to consider the evolutionary benefit of so-called “tolerance formation” in the human brain. 

Just as oxytocin helps keep mothers from becoming so tolerant of their babies’ cries for food that they neglect to nurse them or to protect their little bodies from heat or cold, so oxytocin seems to help addicts fight “tolerance” of drugs or alcohol, the aspect that gets them hooked. 

“Babies are extremely rewarding, at least for a while—like cocaine,” explains Pedersen. “So there’s powerful reward to interact with them. You don’t want that rewarding quality to fade away. You don’t want tolerance formation to occur. That may be why [oxytocin] is anti-addictive.”

He’s especially excited about the lines being drawn by all this new research between recovery treatment and the love hormone’s other wonders. “We may be getting at some core mechanism in the inner brain that really applies to a number of different problems,” says Pederson, who is about to start experiments on whether oxytocin might encourage people to imbibe less. 

“If we give oxytocin for 12 weeks to heavy drinkers in the community, will it cut down on the amounts they drink?” he asks. “We’re just gearing up to find out.” After that, he’s testing oxytocin on opioid addicts.

It won’t come as a surprise to learn that some addicts are lacking in their own supply of the love hormone. But until last year, no one had lined up all the studies about this and developed a theory of why.  

According to researchers in Australia, traumatic experiences at a young age, such as abuse or neglect, can distort oxytocin’s development—and might predispose kids to addictive behavior later on.

"A well-developed oxytocin system is in a position to directly and indirectly increase resilience, for example, by reducing drug reward, increasing social reward, reducing anxiety, reducing stress response and immune stimulation," according to the study. 

Dr. Femke T.A. Buisman-Pijlman, the University of Adelaide pharmacologist behind much of this research, said by email that one day traumatized children might be given the very nasal sprays making the rounds now among shy couples and autism experts—in the case of children, as a prevention for addiction and other “tolerance” troubles as they grow up.

But it’s a big leap to that scenario from where we are now, she said low oxytocin still needs to be shown as a risk factor for addiction. “We also need to know much more about how we affect our own oxytocin system when we administer [synthetic oxytocin] repeatedly,” said Dr. Buisman-Pijlman. 

Just as key, she said, might be finding ways for traumatized people to boost their natural supply.

Intranasal oxytocin has seen its share of poor reviews. In a Mount Sinai School of Medicine study, some people gained trust and some people lost it, depending on previous attitudes. Korean subjects reacted to oxytocin by behaving in the opposite way as American subjects in another study. And still other research found oxytocin made people overly sensitive to others.

Claims about oxytocin’s anti-drinking properties also prompt objections from some recovery experts to the entire idea of expecting physical changes to address addiction. 

“One thing that I feel very wary of in this new age of brain science is reducing everything to a mechanistic function,” said Kathleen Murphy, clinical director at Breathe Life Healing Centers in Los Angeles, when asked for her take on the oxytocin research. “I see alcoholism as much more complex than a physiological problem. I see it as emotional and spiritual as well.”

It’s certainly true that physical withdrawal of the kind that oxytocin is supposed to help are not even an issue for many addicts; at least they don’t perceive them to be.

“Whatever physical component was involved was not readily identifiable to me,” says “Tim,” a middle-aged man who achieved sobriety in a 12-step program after trying many times to stop drinking. (He requested anonymity.)

“Remember, the life of an active alcoholic is physically challenging,” he said. “I woke every morning with a nasty hangover. Every afternoon was a slow improvement to a few relatively healthy-feeling hours in the late afternoon. Early evening was drink time. My point is, I was ignoring and enduring a whole menu of extreme physical sensations.”

As many times as Tim tried to quit, he would never have answered a radio ad like Pedersen’s in North Carolina, because “cravings” were not part of his problem.

Dr. Buisman-Pijlman is also wary about pretending oxytocin will suit everyone, whether as treatment or prevention. But she sees possibilities for it beyond physical withdrawal anyway.

“I can imagine it can work to increase interest in social relations—which have often been put on the back burner [for addicts] and help increase motivation to stay in treatment,” she says. “I don't think it will be a miracle fix, but it may be another tool to use. Anything that increases time in treatment is important, as it is linked to improved outcomes.”

In any case, oxytocin’s prospects are rosy enough that people are eager to get their hands on some of their own.

When Cort Pederson’s North Carolina drinkers realized how much better they felt in the 2012 study, they asked right away how to secure a personal supply. “Can I take this home with me?” they asked him, understandably thinking ahead to their real lives outside the research unit and the awful feelings of withdrawal they might have to face again.

Without FDA approval for anti-addiction purposes, it’s not legal for Pederson to share oxytocin. But because of its longtime use inducing labor during childbirth, there are fewer safety concerns with oxytocin than with most newfangled treatments, so he doesn’t directly forbid his study subjects from ordering the nasal spray off the Internet. 

Still, Pederson told them no: Pocketing a bottle from the lab was not a good idea.

Sally Chew was an editor at Time Inc.’s Health.com as well as at Vibe, Out and POZ magazines. She also authored a true crime book and was a wire-service reporter overseas.

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Sally Chew was an editor at Time Inc.’s Health.com as well as at Vibe, Out and POZ magazines. She also authored a true crime book and was a wire-service reporter overseas. She last wrote about marijuana, the way our ancestors smoked it and which drugs belong on the suicide list. You can find Sally on Linkedin and Twitter.

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