"Love Hormone" Oxytocin May Relieve Alcohol Withdrawal

By Maia Szalavitz 10/16/12

A very different kind of "oxy" could have a valuable and intriguing use, researchers find.

Oxytocin is released during moments of
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Oxytocin—the “love hormone,” not the opioid pain reliever—can relieve withdrawal symptoms in people with alcoholism, a new study finds. Researchers found that the need for benzodiazepines to ease withdrawal symptoms was five times lower in people given oxytocin, compared to a placebo. However, an extremely small sample size—just 11 participants—means that the research must be considered extremely preliminary. Still, its implications are fascinating. Oxytocin is a complex character: its levels peak at orgasm and during labor and breastfeeding—all times when social bonds are being formed. Research on rodents shows that it's involved in creating monogamous relationships and that essentially, it helps link your partner to your pleasure system. So togetherness is bliss, while rejection or distance means withdrawal. Could oxytocin similarly bind you to a drug? The fact that it relieves withdrawal suggests it may be making similar links: it’s not addictive in itself, but it connects the brain’s addiction-related pleasure areas to specific people, or, perhaps, drug-related cues.

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Maia Szalavitz is an author and journalist working at the intersection of brain, culture and behavior.  She has reported for Time magazine online, and is the co-author, with Bruce Perry, of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered, and author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids. You can find her on Linkedin and  Twitter.