Oxytocin is an FDA-approved medication for childbirth, but may also have benefits in alcohol addiction therapy, according to recent research.

Article at a Glance:

Oxytocin is a natural human hormone involved in childbirth and emotional relationships.

Recent studies have shown that oxytocin may play a role in helping people overcome addiction.

Oxytocin may decrease a person’s desire to drink alcohol.

Oxytocin Therapy for Alcoholism Treatment

Could a hormone dubbed the “cuddle chemical” be the answer to curbing alcoholism? A group of long-tailed research participants may have the answer.

Innovative research on alcoholism treatment comes on the heels of staggering alcohol addiction statistics: Approximately 14.1 million American adults currently have a diagnosed alcohol use disorder. With such a large part of the population struggling with this condition, scientists and researchers are testing potential new treatment methods for alcohol abuse. Pioneering these scientific breakthroughs for humans are test participants with four small paws.

A 2019 study led by teams from the National Institutes of Health and The Scripps Research Institute tested whether doses of oxytocin, a naturally-occurring hormone, could reduce alcohol consumption among alcohol-dependent rats — but did it work? More importantly, would oxytocin therapy work for a human?

What Is Oxytocin?

Oxytocin is a hormone that is produced in the hypothalamus and released by the pituitary gland in the human body. It is known for its roles in childbirth, uterine contractions and lactation, and it also plays a significant role in human relationships.

Also a chemical messenger in the brain, oxytocin is nicknamed the “love hormone” and is involved in interpersonal bonding, trust, recognition and sexual arousal. Oxytocin plays a role in the regulation of both the stress and reward, or pleasure, systems in the brain.

Oxytocin already shows promise as a potential hormone therapy method for alcohol use disorder. Oxytocin has been shown to decrease drug and alcohol withdrawal symptoms, drug-seeking behaviors and drug consumption with several substances, including alcohol and opioids. However, the goal of the 2019 study was to further understand oxytocin’s effects on alcohol dependence in particular, to see whether oxytocin could be a viable therapy option for humans who struggle with alcohol addiction.

How Would Oxytocin Treat Alcohol Use Disorder?

Researchers from the National Institutes of Health and The Scripps Research Institute hypothesized that oxytocin could normalize the maladaptive changes in the brain that occur with alcohol dependence and thus reduce alcohol use behaviors.

The study results show that oxytocin discouraged excess drinking in the rats that were dependent on alcohol, and this effect was not seen in the control group’s rats, which weren’t dependent on alcohol.

How did this effect happen? Researchers noted that the oxytocin blocked the signals of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, and prevented alcohol from accessing specific parts of the brain that cause alcohol’s intoxication effects. The oxytocin blocked GABA signaling in the central nucleus of the amygdala, which is the part of the brain involved in alcohol dependence. This decreased the rats’ motivation to drink alcohol.

Researchers believe that this study provides evidence to support that disruptions in the oxytocin system could be connected to an alcohol use disorder. Targeting this system with oxytocin therapy could be a novel treatment approach for people who struggle with alcohol addiction.

Oxytocin Cancels Out the Effects of Intoxication

To understand the results of this study and how oxytocin could treat alcohol abuse, it’s also important to understand how alcohol affects the body. Alcohol has depressant and sedative effects, meaning that alcohol intoxication:

  • Slows brain functioning and neural activity
  • Impairs a person’s judgment
  • Lessens inhibitions
  • Impairs physical coordination

A different group of researchers from the University of Sydney studied impaired motor functioning or physical coordination. In this 2015 study that paved the way for the American research in 2019, the rats in the control group were given no alcohol, other rats were given alcohol only, and the third group of rats were first given oxytocin and then alcohol.

“In the rat equivalent of a sobriety test, the rats given alcohol and oxytocin passed with flying colours, while those given alcohol without oxytocin were seriously impaired,” remarked one of the researchers, Dr. Bowen.

Bowen explained this effect further, saying, “Alcohol impairs your coordination by inhibiting the activity of brain regions that provide fine motor control. Oxytocin prevents this effect to the point where we can’t tell from their behavior that the rats are actually drunk. It’s a truly remarkable effect.”

However, oxytocin therapy for humans has yet to be an established treatment. Although sufficient amounts of oxytocin might make someone appear less drunk than they are, their blood alcohol levels would be the same. Oxytocin would inhibit the intoxicating effects of alcohol, but the alcohol would still be in the body, and wouldn’t leave the system any faster than usual.

Hope is on the horizon, though. According to the researchers, oxytocin can decrease alcohol cravings and consumption overall. Because oxytocin is already a naturally occurring hormone in the human body, hormone therapy with oxytocin holds promise for future treatment applications among people living with alcohol addiction.

Oxytocin Withdrawal and Risks

Oxytocin is currently FDA-approved for use, but only in labor and delivery in pregnant women. It is not a controlled substance and therefore has no known risk of abuse, addiction, dependence or withdrawal.

Side effects of oxytocin generally reflect the dose being given; the higher the dose, the higher the risk of side effects. These include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Slow heart rate
  • Uterine contractions in women

How To Know if You Have an Alcohol Addiction

It can be difficult to determine where to draw the line between regular alcohol use and alcohol addiction. These alcohol addiction quizzes can help you evaluate your alcohol use to get a better idea of your risk of alcohol addiction. Use the results of these quizzes to inform a conversation with your doctor or a therapist about starting rehab for alcoholism.

Related Topic: Is My Loved One Addicted to Alcohol?

Getting Treatment for Alcohol Addiction

Do you or a loved one need rehab now for alcohol addiction? Don’t wait to get help. Representatives at The Recovery Village are available to take your call, answer your questions about rehab and can help you find a treatment that works — even if it’s not at our facility. Calling is free and confidential, and there’s no obligation to commit to a program to learn more about rehab. Call today to start a healthier future.

Erica Weiman
Editor – Erica Weiman
Erica Weiman graduated from Pace University in 2014 with a master's in Publishing and has been writing and editing ever since. Read more
Jessica Pyhtila
Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Jessica Pyhtila, PharmD
Dr. Jessica Pyhtila is a Clinical Pharmacy Specialist based in Baltimore, Maryland with practice sites in inpatient palliative care and outpatient primary care at the Department of Veteran Affairs. Read more
Sources

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder,” April 2021. Accessed November 8, 2021.

PLOS. “Oxytocin could help treat alcohol use disorder,” ScienceDaily. April 16, 2019. Accessed November 8, 2021.

Society for Endocrinology. “Oxytocin.” December 2020. Accessed November 8, 2021.

Valdez, Rubi. “Cuddle Hormone Oxytocin May Help Treat Alcoholism,” Tech Times, April 18, 2019. Accessed November 8, 2021.

University of Sydney. “Sobering effect of the love hormone (w/ Video),” Medical Xpress, February 23, 2015. Accessed November 8, 2021.

Moeini, M.; Omidi, A.; Sehat, M.; Banafshe H.R. “The Effects of Oxytocin on Withdrawal, Craving and Stress Response in Heroin-Dependent Patients: A Randomized, Double-Blind Clinical Trial,” European Addiction Research, 2019. Accessed November 8, 2021.

Drugs.com. “Oxytocin.” August 23, 2021. Accessed November 8, 2021.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.