Oxytocin, also known as the ‘love hormone,’ seems pretty magical: Moms and dads release it as they form lifelong bonds with their newborns, lovers share an upsurge of it, even pet owners create oxytocin. “Anything that gives you self-pleasure will increase the release of oxytocin,” says Dr. Rocio Salas-Whalen, an endocrinologist and founder of New York Endocrinology.
But while oxytocin is most well-known for its role in deepening social connections, this naturally occurring hormone might also help you lose weight. A review of studies in the journal Obesity shows one spray of oxytocin into the nose can slash your appetite and zap your drive to eat for pleasure.
“Oxytocin appears to have appetite-suppression properties,” says Dr. Charlie Seltzer, weight-loss specialist based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Essentially, it’s thought to weaken your brain’s reward signals for food by calming down a key part of your brain’s reward system called the ventral tegmental area (VTA), Seltzer explains.
Most of the research suggesting the love hormone could aid in weight loss has been done on animals. One study, for example, found obese monkeys given twice-daily injections of oxytocin for five weeks ate less, burned more energy and lost more weight compared to those who didn’t receive the hormone.
But there’s some emerging research in humans, too. For example, a study in Obesity finds oxytocin lowers how much food people eat by about 122 calories per meal and improves insulin sensitivity, which is key for lowering blood sugar levels
Another small study presented at the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting found an oxytocin nose spray lowered people’s responses to especially enticing processed foods. When overweight but otherwise healthy young men received either a single dose of oxytocin or a placebo, those who’d taken oxytocin showed weakened connections between the VTA (that reward system part of the brain) and a brain region that would motivate them to reach for a snack. In other words, the study suggests oxytocin modulates pathways that light up in response to highly palatable foods
Since the desire to eat — regardless of whether or not your body needs fuel — could be what’s making some people overeat, dampening must-eat signals could be a potential treatment for obesity, says Dr. Liya Kerem, the study’s lead author and a research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.
CAN YOUR BODY’S OWN STORES OF OXYTOCIN HELP YOU SLIM DOWN?
While some of the research surrounding oxytocin and weight loss is promising, no one’s going to go out and buy oxytocin spray any time soon, says Seltzer. More research is needed to uncover potential side effects and long-term outcomes of the hormone (for example, your body can sense when it’s being given more of a hormone and shut down its own production, says Salas-Whalen).
For now, you’ll have to rely on your body’s own production of the love hormone. But here’s the thing: For weight loss, you’d need an oxytocin boost of about 96–100 international units per day (according to studies thus far) and your own body’s production (which is very difficult to measure) comes out at around 0.7 microunits per day, says Salas-Whalen, adding, “the amount that we normally produce is nothing compared to the doses that we use for therapeutic indications.”
That said, oxytocin release still gives you a mood boost and may make you less likely to look to food for pleasure, says Seltzer. So your body’s oxytocin could fuel your weight-loss journey in a more indirect way. In general, anything you can do to be present with someone (hello, oxytocin release) is going to be helpful for weight-loss efforts, says Seltzer.
HOW TO BOOST OXYTOCIN LEVELS
- Host a Dinner Party
Sharing food with people you love in a mindful way (Think: no devices or distractions) can increase your satisfaction from eating and give you an oxytocin boost, says Seltzer. Just keep portions in check to avoid overeating, he suggests.
- Love Hard
Nurturing relationships with your partner, children, family and friends up your oxytocin, says Salas-Whalen. Hug the people you love and make it a point to make eye contact during in-person conversations, suggests Seltzer. With your partner, you can get a shared oxytocin rush from giving each other massages, notes Salas-Whalen.
- Pet Your Dog
Just seeing, hearing or hugging a pup can give both of you an oxytocin boost. Even better, petting a dog can significantly reduce your blood pressure levels and amounts of the stress hormone cortisol, according to a review in Frontiers of Psychology.