In the same intense way people bond with other people, they can also bond with drugs, and oxytocin plays a surprising role in both processes. It can promote addictions as well as hamper them, researchers say.
Oxytocin’s well-known role in decreasing social distance can actually nudge someone toward using drugs by lowering their inhibitions to trying them, says Jim Pfaus, Ph.D., a psychologist at Concordia University in Montreal.
“There’s a thin line . . . you know it’s illegal to have this substance, but you do it anyway,” Pfaus says.
A May 2008 British Journal of Pharmacology study examined how oxytocin interacts with commonly used party drugs such as Ecstasy and the “date rape” drug GHB, which may take advantage of oxytocin to produce their pro-social and pro-sexual effects.
And oxytocin can even influence a sweet tooth – perhaps the most innocuous of all so-called addictions. Research from the University of Pittsburgh showed it’s not only willpower at work when indulging in our trigger foods, identifying a deficiency of oxytocin as a contributor.
The same researchers sought to determine if oxytocin had anything to do with cravings for fatty snacks as well, but apparently it can only be implicated for sugar cravings.
“Anything that makes you feel good – your cat, your baby, listening to Mozart – is going to be an oxytocin event,” says Pfaus. “So when it happens, it brings you closer to anything that’s reward-related.”
But when trying to kick an established drug habit, addicts can also exploit the positive effects of oxytocin by transferring pleasurable feelings to a healthy activity.
In addictions, unique therapies developed from oxytocin may increase the odds that abusers can kick their habit. A 1999 issue of the journal Progress in Brain Research showed that oxytocin lowered withdrawal symptoms and abusers’ tolerance to various addictive drugs, including opiates, cocaine and alcohol.
While overcoming addiction is extremely difficult, Pfaus says being aware of how oxytocin works in our brains can help the process. The key is to substitute another satisfying activity for the satisfaction once derived from drugs, which lit up so-called “pleasure centers” of the brain.
“You have to say yes to something else,” he says. “You need something else in your life that makes you feel good.”
Perhaps those in the best position to kick an addiction are addicts in a partnered relationship, Pfaus says, because sex between bonded couples can boost oxytocin levels in the brain enough to dilute withdrawal symptoms from illicit drugs.
“Withdrawal has a significant analogy to those who end relationships,” he notes. “The withdrawal effect is huge if they’ve bonded. Melancholy, depression, the intense pull of the other individual . . . they crave it, they stalk it. It’s similar to drug withdrawal.”
The jury is still out, however, in oxytocin’s official role in combating addictions. Though scientists have theorized that its use in such circumstances could result in fewer drug cravings, they say more research is required.
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Written by Maureen Salamon. For more information contact Bryan Post, Managing Editor of Oxytocin Central email@example.com or call (405) 476-1983