Oxytocin – The Social Bonding Hormone

Oxytocin, a hormone involved in social bonding, may have beneficial effects as a medical treatment for individuals with generalized and social anxiety, as well as bonding issues. It is also helpful for improving sexual arousal between couples and orgasms in women. In autism, and autism-spectrum disorders (ASD) its benefits are becoming more well-known as the issues of generalized and social anxiety, as well as lack of social connectedness are quite prevalent.

Autism typically involves speech and language problems (communication issues), lack of social bonding or interest in peers, repetitive and odd behaviors, and sensory problems (taste, touch, and sound sensitivities). Some ASD individuals have severe anxiety and trust issues. In some cases their anxiety can contribute to aggressive or defensive behavior. The anxiety, particularly socially, can be a hindrance for one-on-one relationships and in group settings. Obviously, aggressive behavior is problematic for everyone involved. People who are not autistic, but suffer with anxiety, particularly in social situations can also manifest with sensory overload and behavior issues that can manifest as abnormal or irrational fears, moodiness and lack of trust.

Oxytocin, as natural hormone, can help with improved social interaction. It acts to decrease nerve signaling from an area in the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala transmits impulses that are connected to a perceived threat. One function of oxytocin is to silence this area in the brain, hence, diminishing the behavior of anxiety and fear.

Researchers at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine believe that oxytocin could be a useful therapy because in autism (and we know in other conditions as well) the physiological function of oxytocin fits with those characteristics commonly seen in ASD individuals, “studies with animals have found that oxytocin is involved in a variety of behaviors, including adult-to-adult and parent-child bonding, social memory and cognition, reduction of anxiety and repetitive behaviors,” states researcher Jennifer Bartz.

The Mt. Sinai research team did an infusion study with a group of autistic and Asperger adults. What they found was both a “reduction of repetitive behaviors. No reduction occurred in the placebo group,” reported Eric Hollander.

The research group also evaluated the positive effects of oxytocin on social cognition (the ability to detect facial or voice emotional cues). Each participant listened to pre-recorded speech patterns with various intonations such as happiness, frustration, anger, etc. Each member of the study then had to try and identify the emotion they were hearing. The participants who received oxytocin were able to retain their ability for emotional cue recognition up to two weeks after, whereas those that received a placebo had no change.

Each researcher at Mt. Sinai acknowledged that more research is needed, particularly with oxytocin use in children. However, the results of this study are promising because it shows that a hormone can have wide-sweeping effects for many behavioral and cognitive challenges. In my experience, this not only holds true in autism, but in many other patients as well who suffer with social anxiety, panic and cognitive problems.

To get a more comprehensive picture of oxytocin, listed here are some additional benefits:
• Reduces blood pressure and regulates abnormal cortisol levels.
• Decreases anxiety, social anxiety and fear.
• Increases bonding and feelings of love.
• Improves social interactions and feelings of trust.
• Improves pain thresholds, as well as promotes growth and healing.
• Involved in milk production and let-down during breast-feeding, and plays a major role in mother to baby bonding.

In short, this is a very interesting hormone and a potential medical treatment to consider for individuals on the autism-spectrum who have social disinterest and fear, anxiety, and trust issues, as well as others who suffer with similar problems. Also, oxytocins ability to enhance facial recognition cues can be important for more normal social interaction and relationship development.

Oxytocin is available as an injection, nasal spray, and oral forms – lipid matrix capsule and sublingual tablet (the form most commonly used for adults to enhance sexual arousal and organism). The sublingual tablet along with the nasal spray are always common routes of administration in autism too. The nasal spray is generally used once to twice daily, or as needed in times of heightened fear and anxiety. Some compounding pharmacies are making oxytocin into sublingual tablets for immediate absorption.

Like anything in medication, particularly when dealing with hormone chemistry some caution is warranted. It is important to recognize that hormones have profound effects throughout the body and can influence other physiological changes. Oxytocin does have some influence on sodium levels, as well as glucagon and insulin – which affects blood sugar. My feeling is that continued use of a product like oxytocin needs to be monitored with periodic blood work to check various levels of blood chemistry. This is easily done through any local laboratory. However, the potential upside as a medical treatment, particularly in individuals with significant anxiety and bonding issues – can be very useful.

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