In a culture where external appearance is nourished and nurtured, there are many men and women who go to great lengths to strive for thinness and social perfection. While it’s normal to wish to look different or change something about yourself, it becomes a growing concern when the obsession of body image affects your eating habits, thoughts, and life — a sign of an eating disorder — anorexia nervosa. Although currently there is no pharmacological treatment for the condition, According to two studies, British and Korean researchers believe the "love hormone," oxytocin, may become a new anorexia treatment to help women curb fixations for food and weight.

"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,” said Janet Treasure, senior author of the two studies and a professor at the King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry, in the news release. The distorted self-image anorexics have is usually fostered by cognitive biases that affect how they evaluate and think about their body and food. Treatment for the eating disorder has been based on psychological factors, but researchers believe approaching anorexia from a biology perspective could be much more effective because it seems to be more brain directed.

In the first study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, a team of researchers recruited a cohort of anorexic women, and healthy controls to evaluate if taking a dose of oxytocin would alter their views on images of food and fat body parts. Thirty-one patients with anorexia and 33 healthy controls were administered either a dose of oxytocin via nasal spray or a placebo. The participants were asked to look at images of food (high and low calorie) or pictures or various body parts or shapes that were either thin, fat, or not associated with weight, such as eyes and weight (scales).

During the study, the participants’ response rates were measured based on the images being flashed on the screen. The study uncovered a pattern: The participants who focused on the negative images were more likely to identify them rapidly. When the participants were given the intranasal oxytocin, the researchers found they showed less interest in the food and shape-related pictures. This mimicked the same results seen in the healthy controls. The effects of oxytocin were most effective in anorexic women who had greater communication problems like difficulty reading people, the BBC reported.  

The second study published in the journal PLoS ONE, the same group of participants were recruited to observe their reactions to social expressions, such as anger, disgust, or happiness before and after taking oxytocin or a placebo. The “love hormone” was found to decrease the attention anorexic women paid to disgusted faces, while it increased their awareness to angry ones. This finding suggests people with anorexia are preoccupied with putdowns and social ranking, but they tend to suppress their rage.

"Our research shows that oxytocin reduces patients' unconscious tendencies to focus on food, body shape, and negative emotions such as disgust,” said Youl-Ri Kim, lead author of both studies and a professor from Inje University in Seoul, South Korea, in the news release. “Our research adds important evidence to the increasing literature on oxytocin treatments for mental illnesses, and hints at the advent of a novel, ground-breaking treatment option for patients with anorexia." Oxytocin could divert anorexics attention from food, weight, and feelings of disgust, and normalize their responses.

These studies highlight the possibility that oxytocin may be a viable treatment for anorexia. The hormone increases a person’s sensitivity to detect emotional expressions and can enhance the processing of explicit and hidden positive and negative facial expressions. In women with a personality or eating disorder, the hormone can reduce alertness to “disgust” expressions and amygdala reactivity to social threats, wrote the researchers.

Currently in the U.S., approximately four percent of women suffer from anorexia nervosa in their lifetime, while one percent of female adolescents have anorexia, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. At an early age, the onset of puberty, a break up, or going away to school, can trigger the eating disorder. Signs and symptoms anorexia include dieting despite being thin, eating only certain low-calorie foods, and pretending to eat or lying about eating.  

 

Sources:

Kim, Y-R. Intranasal oxytocin attenuates attentional bias for eating and fat shape stimuli in patients with anorexia nervosa. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2014.

Chan-Hyung Kim CH, YR Kim, Park JH, Pyo J, Treasure J. The Impact of Intranasal Oxytocin on Attention to Social Emotional Stimuli in Patients with Anorexia Nervosa: A Double Blind within-Subject Cross-over Experiment. PLoS ONE. 2014.