Written by: Neel Patel PharmD. Candidate, University of Georgia College of Pharmacy Class of 2020
Oxytocin is a hormone secreted by the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland, a pea-sized structure at the base of the brain. Sometimes known as the "cuddle hormone" or the "love hormone," oxytocin promotes feelings of devotion, trust, and bonding and is released through physical touches, such as hugs, and also linked to the intensity of orgasms during sexual activity.
A 2013 review noted all of oxytocin's possible relationship-enhancing effects, which were said to include:
- Fostering pro-relationship mindsets and behaviors
- Enhancing the processing of bonding cues
- Facilitating improved communication
For females, it is the neuropeptide responsible for inducing labor contractions in pregnant women and also the "let down reflex," which stimulates the production of milk during breastfeeding. Oxytocin is synthesized in the hypothalamus and stored in the posterior pituitary where it can be released when needed.
Figure 1: Chapter 16- Nutritional Aspects of Pregnancy and Breastfeeding. Vicky Pehling
- suckling stimulates nerves in the nipple and areola that travel to the hypothalamus
- In response, the hypothalamus stimulates the posterior pituitary to release oxytocin and anterior pituitary to release prolactin
- Oxytocin stimulates lobules in the breast to let down (release) milk from storage. Prolactin stimulates additional milk production
Oxytocin Uses In Childbirth
In general, oxytocin should not be used to start labor unless there are specific medical reasons. However, the FDA approves the use of oxytocin for pregnant women who have complications of childbirth, such as:
- Cardiovascular-Renal Disease
- Premature Rupture of Membranes (PROM)
It can also be used to reduce and control postpartum uterine bleeding with minimal side effects, namely nausea, vomiting, and headaches.
Alternative Uses of Oxytocin
In recent years, it has been suggested that oxytocin may prove beneficial for a number of clinical conditions beyond those approved by the FDA.
Oxytocin uses studied outside of FDA indication include:
Chronic / Acute Pain - Numerous randomized studies have shown promising results of oxytocin use for chronic and acute pain. In addition to activating its own receptors and decreasing pain signals, oxytocin binds to opioid receptors and stimulates endogenous opioid release in the brain. In addition to relieving pain, oxytocin lowers serum cortisol and can produce a calming effect and improve mood.(1)
Oxytocin can also modulate pain by counteracting with psychological features such as calming the emotion of pain or removing the cognitive attention to pain.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) - Oxytocin has been implicated in the regulation of repetitive and affiliative behaviors and stress reactivity. Therefore, it is expected to be a potential therapeutic resource for the social core symptoms of ASD, since this neuropeptide can modulate human social behavior and cognition. (2)
Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD) - HSDD is attributed to an imbalance in central sexual excitatory (dopamine, norepinephrine, melanocortin, and oxytocin) and sexual inhibitory (serotonin, opioid, endocannabinoid, and prolactin) pathways. For some, treatment with oxytocin nasal spray has shown to improve the sexual quality of life significantly.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) - Research findings indicate that repeated intranasal oxytocin offers promising early preventive intervention for PTSD for individuals at increased risk for PTSD due to high acute symptom severity.(3)
Obesity / Weight Loss - Scientists suspect that one element of the obesity epidemic is that the brains of obese people respond differently to images of delicious, calorically dense foods. Studies have shown that oxytocin reduces activation in the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that controls hunger, and increases activation in areas of the brain associated with impulse control. Thus, some believe that the hormone creates less of a need to eat, reduces the compulsion to eat for fun, and improves impulse control when it comes to actually reaching for that second slice of cake.(4)
Addiction & Withdrawal - Oxytocin has also been used as a potential mediator and regulator of drug addiction. Several studies have shown good outcomes in cocaine, opioid, and cannabis addiction. In a placebo-controlled trial the administration of oxytocin demonstrated efficacy in reducing withdrawal symptoms, anxiety and need for lorazepam in subjects with alcohol dependence undergoing detoxification.(5)
Compounding Oxytocin For Patients
Innovation Compounding can compound oxytocin in a variety of forms such as nasal sprays, topical creams, oral tablets, sublingual tablets, and troches (lozenges). Injectable oxytocin is also available to medical practioners and clinics.
If you’d like to know more about the use of oxytocin for sexual wellness or other conditions, please connect with one of our pharmacists or talk with a physician about your options.
The information contained herein is not intended to replace or substitute for conventional medical care, or encourage its abandonment. Patients should consult with a physician to discuss all treatment options available to meet their individual needs.
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