Is Hormone Therapy the Next Step in Treating Anorexia?

Oxytocin has been used for years to help women pre and post-partum and more recently the hormone has been shown to be effective in helping treat psychiatric illnesses such as Schizophrenia, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and Anxiety. Often referred to as the “love drug”, Oxytocin is a hormone which is excreted by our pituitary gland and can have mental and physical effects. Now, BBC News has reported that studies conducted by UK and Korean scientists are showing promise in the use of Oxytocin in the treatment of Anorexia. The preliminary findings of the studies showed that women with who were given an injection of Oxytocin were less likely to fiate on food and/or body image (Pederson, 2014).  Scientists have found effective treatments for Bulimia, and Binge Eating Disorder but results have been less than stellar when working with men and women who suffer with Anorexia Nervosa. Furthermore, the psychotropic drugs that have been used are mostly used to help the patients who suffer from other psychiatric disorders.

Although the studies were relatively small, they are promising as currently there are very few pharmacological options for the treatment of Anorexia. The question begs to be asked however, “Why would this drug work?”. While it is not a simple answer, we can look at it from a variety of angles.  Men and women who suffer from Anorexia Nervosa are often suffering from a certain level of anxiety that predates the onset of their illness. In a recent interview with Psych Central, Dr. Janet Treasure from the Department of Psychological Medicine at King’s College London noted,

“Patients with anorexia have a range of social difficulties which often start in their early teenage years, before the onset of the illness, These social problems, which can result in isolation, may be important in understanding both the onset and maintenance of anorexia. By using oxytocin as a potential treatment for anorexia, we are focusing on some of these underlying problems we see in patients.”

This makes sense as recently the hormone has been used to help treat people with Autism Spectrum Disorders. While many might wonder what one disorder has to do with the other, it is important to take into account the social anxiety portion both share. In a study published by the American Journal of Psychiatry, two thirds of participants with an eating disorder also had an anxiety disorder. Oxytocin has been repeatedly shown to help people with Social Anxiety break free from the bonds of their illness. It eases nerves, makes people more outgoing, and helps with self-perception.

These findings alone are worth further research as they show promise in helping people suffering from Anorexia feel more at ease. Psychotropic drugs should not be the single treatment when working with people who are suffering from mental illness, but they may help with the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy portion of treatment if they can feel more at ease when working with the mental health provider.

As with all medications there are side-effects to using Oxytocin, the most pronounced side effect being intensified jealousy.

All in all, the promise of a new, potentially effective treatment for Anorexia Nervosa is one that brings great hope for men and women who suffer from one of the most dangerous mental illnesses. We live in an era where we have made significant scientific advancements in the treatment of many illnesses, we have almost eradicated some, and we have found genetic markers for others. Isn’t it about time for scientists to find a feasible treatment for men and women suffering from Anorexia?