Could the ‘love hormone’ help treat anorexia?

A new study carried out by King’s College London revealed that when sufferers of anorexia inhaled love hormone oxytocin, they had less aversion to images of overweight body types and high calorie foods. Ordinarily, those with the eating disorder would fixate on such images, but when the hormone had been inhaled sufferers were less focused on them.

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Oxytocin is a hormone that typically releases during moments of bonding – for example sex, childbirth and breastfeeding. In synthesised form, the hormone has been tested as a treatment for various other psychological disorders, but this was the first time it was tested for the treatment of anorexia.

The study was published in ‘Psychoneuroendocrinology’ and involved 31 patients with the eating disorder and 33 healthy controls. Participants were shown images relating to food, weight and body shape before being given either a dose of oxytocin or placebo (delivered via a nasal spray). The participants were then asked to look at the images again.

During the image viewings, researchers measured how quickly the participants identified the images. If they focused on the negative images, they would identify with them quicker.

After taking oxytocin, participants with anorexia were found to have reduced their focus on the images of fat body parts and images of food – suggesting that it may help to relieve psychological stresses and symptoms associated with the condition.

Anorexia nervosa is thought to affect around one in 150 teenage girls in Britain and is a leading cause of mental health related deaths, through suicide and physical complications. At present there is no medication to help treat anorexia, so it is hoped that this study can shed light on potential medical treatments.

Prof Janet Treasure from King’s College London said the following:

“Patients with anorexia have a range of social difficulties which often start in their early teenage years, before the onset of the illness. These social problems, which can result in isolation, may be important in understanding both the onset and maintenance of anorexia. By using oxytocin as a potential treatment for anorexia, we are focusing on some of these underlying problems we see in patients.”

She added that while the research is in its early stages, it is hugely exciting to see the potential this treatment could have.

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Written by Katherine Nicholls
Kat is a Content Producer for Memiah and writer for Counselling Directory and Happiful magazine.

Written by Katherine Nicholls

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