Nasally-administered doses of oxytocin, also known as the "love hormone," have been shown to ease the urgent cravings experienced by alcoholics who are trying to quit drinking.
According to New Scientist, a team of researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, led by Dr. Court Pederson, treated volunteers in the first 3 days of an alcohol detoxification program twice a day with an oxytocin nasal spray or a placebo. When volunteers' withdrawal symptoms reached a certain level of intensity, they were to be given the sedative drug Lorazepam.
New Scientist reported that of the 11 volunteers, "The oxytocin group had fewer alcohol cravings and milder withdrawal symptoms than the placebo group, and used just one-fifth of the lorazepam (Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, doi.org/jgp)."
According to Pederson, "Four [oxytocin] volunteers didn't need any Lorazepam at all."
Lorazepam, which is commonly used to treat people in detox, is a member of the benzodiazepine family of drugs like Valium and Xanax and carries the same side effects and risk of dependency. Patients taken off of the drug, which has the brand name Ativan, often complain of cravings, anxiousness and insomnia.
No one entirely understands how oxytocin eases the desire to drink, but the hormone is known to play a role in social bonding, i.e., feelings of love, affection and friendship. A 2008 study observed that the chemical "promotes social affiliation in humans is by enhancing the encoding of positive social memories."
Oxytocin has not been associated with any side effects. Pederson and his team hope that eventually the hormone can be used to ease the discomfort and anxiety of alcohol withdrawal and thereby reduce the incidence of relapse in alcoholics who try to quit.
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