'Love hormone' released during sex and childbirth could cure anorexia

Oxytocin is also released during childbirth and sex

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The Independent Online

The "love hormone" that is released during sex, childbirth and breastfeeding could be the answer to treating eating disorders, scientists have said.

Oxytocin, which is thought to help a mother bond with her baby, has already been suggested as a treatment for some psychiatric disorders, including social anxiety in people with autism.

Patients with anorexia nervosa were found to be less fixated on food and body image after being given a dose of the hormone, according to small studies by scientists in the UK and Korea.

In the first of two recent studies, 31 patients with anorexia - and 33 people without the condition - were given either a dose of oxytocin, or a placebo.

They then looked at images depicting high and low calorie foods, and different body shapes.

Anorexics have previously been found to focus for longer on "negative" images, such as people who are overweight.

But the research, which was published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, found that after taking oxytocin, they were less likely to do so.

Another study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, found that people with the eating disorder - which has been linked to a heightened perception of threat - were less likely to focus on facial expressions of disgust or anger after a dose of the hormone.

Research in Australia also found that people given doses of oxytocin over a period of four weeks were less concerned with weight and shape.

Professor Janet Treasure, from King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry, who led both studies, said the findings were "hugely exciting".

Her colleague, Professor Youl-Ri Kim, from Inje University in Seoul, South Korea, said that the research suggested the potential for a "novel, ground-breaking treatment option for patients with anorexia," which is thought to affect around one in every 150 teenage girls in the UK.

But eating disorder charities have warned that the findings are still a "long way from becoming a useable treatment".

Leanne Thorndyke, of eating disorders charity Beat, told the BBC: "Eating disorders are complex, and a number of risk factors need to combine to increase the likelihood that any one individual develops the condition.

"Brain chemistry and hormonal factors are part of the mix, with adrenalin, dopamine and the various appetite regulating hormones such as ghrelin being active areas for researchers as well as this research looking at the hormone oxytocin.

"We know that there is much that still needs to be understood about the biological basis for eating disorders.

"We are hopeful that this research will lead to a new, effective treatments being designed, but it is early days yet."