Oxytocin is commonly known as the “snuggle hormone” or the “love hormone.” Various types of positive sensory stimulations such as warmth, touch, or even eating food release it. Nature wired men and women to experience surges of oxytocin when bonding. It helps create the feeling of falling in love and naturally enhances a sense of trust, optimism, mastery, and self-esteem while also playing an important role in birth, lactation, bonding, and orgasm.
During pregnancy, both the fetus and mother release oxytocin. It stimulates uterine contractions and helps build a stronger connection between mother and child.
We know that autism spectrum disorder, a neurodevelopmental disorder, is characterized by dysfunction in three core behavioral domains: repetitive behaviors, social deficits, and language abnormalities. In some cases of autism spectrum disorder, oxytocin receptor sites are not available and in other cases, oxytocin production is not adequate. Repetitive behavior in autism spectrum disorders may be related to these abnormalities in the oxytocin system. There is evidence that supplemental oxytocin improves these social interactions – emotional recognition and communication in young people with the disorder.
It is possible for a person’s oxytocin levels to dip too low and possibly never return to a sufficient level, such as in cases of trauma. The stress of traumatic events in childhood or adulthood may result in persistent or intermittent feelings of anxiety or fear. Intranasal administration of oxytocin reportedly decreases anxious feelings in humans and may therefore have therapeutic value for anxiety disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Oxytocin can induce anti-stress-like effects such as reduction of blood pressure and cortisol levels while also increasing pain thresholds, thus reducing anxiety and anxiety-like symptoms.
The connection between our brain and gut continues to become clearer – each influencing the other. We know that 90-95% of our body’s serotonin is produced in our intestines. Like serotonin, oxytocin also holds sway over our digestive system. Oxytocin can positively influence gastrointestinal inflammation by reducing pro-inflammatory cytokines that may be a contributing factor to irritable bowel disease (IBD), autoimmune disorders, and food sensitivities. Further, addressing any gastrointestinal dysbiosis or pathology will, by extension, have a positive impact of overall brain health and vice versa.
For those seeking a novel approach to addressing autism spectrum disorders, PTSD, social or other types of anxiety, stress management, or gastrointestinal inflammation leading to food sensitivities and autoimmune conditions, then intranasal oxytocin might be a place to start.
Dr. Brian Myers is a naturopathic primary care doctor with a focus on pediatric and family medicine at Live Well Clinic in La Quinta. For more information, go to www.livewellclinic.org or call (760) 771.5970.
Sources: 1) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3055566; 2) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19897177; 3) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3068601