Addiction is a complicated disease that develops due to a combination of genetic, biological, psychological and social factors. Research is still being conducted into the exact role these factors and others play in addiction, as well as what increases a person’s risk of becoming addicted to a substance or behavior. A recent review of research postulates that one biological factor might explain why some people are more prone to addiction to others: a disruption in the development of oxytocin, known as the “love hormone.”
Oxytocin—The Love Hormone
Oxytocin is called the love hormone because of the role it plays in building social relationships, including increasing levels of trust, fidelity, and love. It is most well known for its role in the bond between mother and child, and between sexual partners, as well as initiating the production of the mother’s milk after birth. Oxytocin has also been shown to lower the body’s immune and inflammation response, enhancing the ability to fight infection, as well as reduce pain and decrease stress levels. It can also affect the memory in various ways depending on the situation, including intensifying memories or causing a person to forget.
Although much of the research into oxytocin focuses on its function in social interactions, some recent studies have begun to look into the role this hormone might play in psychiatric disorders, including anorexia, schizophrenia, and autism. Recent studies have also illustrated the importance of oxytocin in basic social interactions, stress levels, and mood, which could mean oxytocin plays a role in anxiety disorders and depression as well. These studies have been unable to show conclusive proof of the hormone’s relationship with these disorders; however, there is enough evidence to justify further research. Research has also been done into the possible relationship between oxytocin and addiction.
The Relationship Between Oxytocin And Addiction
Previous research has found that experiencing maltreatment or stressful life events prior to puberty, especially during the first few years of life, is associated with problematic drinking behavior in adolescence and having an increased risk of alcohol or drug addiction in early adulthood. A new study postulates that the contributing factor to this risk might just be a disruption in the oxytocin system.
For this study, researchers from the University of Adelaide in Australia evaluated existing studies concerning the relationship between the oxytocin system and addiction and formed a hypothesis for further review. Based on previous research, they found that children as young as 4 years old showed high risks of developing addiction problems. Because the oxytocin system is fully developed around the age of 3, it could hold the answer to some of the addiction risks in certain people.
Studies have shown that oxytocin interacts with many of the same systems that play a role in addiction. The researchers hypothesize that higher levels of oxytocin could reduce the pleasure effects of drugs and alcohol, which could reduce the risk of addiction. This could be why adversity early in life increases the chance of addiction: the stress disrupts the development of the oxytocin system.
A Disruption In The Oxytocin System
People are born with oxytocin, and it plays an important role in the bonding between mother and child. However, the development of the body’s ability to produce the hormone is not complete until about the age of 3. During that period, the body is vulnerable to potential disruptions in this development, due to either internal or external sources, such as genetics, gender, social interactions, and the environment.
The development of the system is largely based on a person’s experiences, meaning that external influences significantly impact the development of the system. If a child is subject to malnourishment, abuse, illness, stress, negligence, or trauma, he or she could have a lower-functioning oxytocin system.
There are substantial differences in the oxytocin levels and reactivity of the system in individuals. The system develops and matures over time, with its most significant and vulnerable period in the early years. Different influences affect how this system develops, including its connectivity with the other body systems.
The researchers believe that disruptions in early life influence the developing oxytocin system, increasing a person’s susceptibility to addiction. Therefore, one way to minimize a person’s risk is to pay special attention during the potentially critical periods during development where environmental influences play a larger role.
Oxytocin And Addiction
The oxytocin system might contribute to addiction because it has bidirectional interactions with many of the same systems that play vital roles in the phases of addiction, including the stress-axis, autonomic nervous system, neurotransmitters, and the immune system. Changes in the system could affect how a person reacts to the drugs and alcohol.
A disruption in the system might alter how oxytocin modulates and reduces the effects of drugs and alcohol on a person. The researchers hypothesize that for individuals with a low-functioning oxytocin system, drug or alcohol abuse will be more rewarding, causing them to continue to use and to escalate the use. Additionally, these individuals might have more problems with stress, which could increase the susceptibility to stress-induced relapse.
Adolescence might also be a time where oxytocin is vulnerable to external influences, as well as play a role in the development of addiction problems. The body changes that occur during puberty could affect the oxytocin system or its interactions with other body systems. Additionally, exposure to alcohol and drugs could affect reward seeking and drug use behaviors, causing a person to find greater reward in alcohol and drug use. Social experiences during the teen years could also have long-lasting effects on a person, including drug and alcohol abuse.
Based on the researchers’ study, they found that a well-developed oxytocin system can directly and indirectly lead to a person choosing not to engage in problematic drinking or drug abuse. It can reduce the drug reward, increase social reward, reduce anxiety, reduce stress, and reduce the immune and inflammatory response in the body.
Therefore, a well-developed system will help a person respond healthily to stress and to form social bonds, which would reduce some associated risks for substance abuse. This could lead to a person not being tempted to over-indulge or escalate his or her drinking or drug use to problematic behaviors. It can also help a person to resist temptation and avoid relapse when he or she chooses to cease drinking or drug use.
However, if the normal development of this system is disrupted, the oxytocin responses might be lower. It might also not connect and interact as well with the other body systems. This might cause a person to receive a greater reward response from drug and alcohol abuse, increasing the temptation to engage in problematic behavior that can lead to addiction.
This study concludes with proposing a framework to set up future research into drug addiction. Currently, there is no direct evidence of the role endogenous oxytocin plays in addiction in humans. More study will need to be done to see if this postulated theory holds true. However, based upon the current research, it is plausible that problems in the oxytocin system might contribute to an individual’s risk of addiction.
Addiction Treatment At Sovereign Health Group
Sovereign Health Group offers state-of-the-art, evidence based treatment for addiction, as well as mental health disorders and dual diagnosis. Our programs utilize a biopsychosocial approach that includes individual and group psychotherapy, meditation, yoga, equine therapy, art therapy, and music therapy. You can learn more about our programs here, or you can call our Admissions team at 866-264-9778.