A number of risk factors contribute to the high numbers of students with eating disorders, including the pressures of academic life, living independently and meeting new people. This year’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week (24th February to 2nd March 2014) brought to light an 8% rise in the number of eating disorder related hospital admissions in the past year. Now there’s hope that oxytocin, a hormone produced in the hypothalamus and associated with building intimacy, could be used as a way of countering the symptoms of anorexia.
“The love hormone”, oxytocin, is produced in large quantities during and after child birth and orgasm. It has strong connections with building romantic intimacy and parent child bonding but also simply with social activity. Low levels are released after activities such as a handshake or a hug.
A study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that anorexia suffers who lost weight through restrictive behaviour had significantly lower levels of oxytocin than the average. Interestingly, women who had become underweight due to bulimic, rather than restrictive behaviours did not have lower than average levels of the hormone. The hormone is also released after eating. The study suggests that the lower levels of oxytocin result from the persistently low food intake of the patients. However, they also suggest that the lower levels result in a cycle which exacerbate the unhealthy preoccupation with food and body image.
It follows then, that higher levels of this molecule may in fact help sufferers of the disorder. A recent study gave patients with anorexia and a control group, either doses of oxytocin or a placebo and asked them to view several series of images. The study revealed that doses of the drug lowered the anorexic participants’ tendencies to fixate on images of high calorie food, fat body parts and scales.
Suffers of anorexia often have social difficulties too, including anxiety and hypersensitivity to negative emotions. When the patients were asked to view images of different facial expressions, those given the oxytocin also had less tendency to become preoccupied with negative facial expressions such as disgust and anger.
A similar study with oxytocin nasal spray has previously been carried out on children with autism, suggesting it may help them with social anxiety. It has been tested on patients with many other psychiatric disorders though results are largely inconclusive.
Though the studies are still in their infancy, the hormone is already synthesised for other medical uses. It is applied to induce labour, control bleeding after childbirth and treat incomplete or inevitable abortion.
Most of these recent studies have been on relatively small sample groups. Whether the drug will be synthesised for large scale treatment of disorders is yet to be seen but hopefully this exciting new development will be a step toward treating anorexia: the third most common chronic illness among adolescents, and the mental disorder with the highest mortality rate.