Oxytocin – The Love Hormone & Alcohol
Oxytocin has established a reputation as the “love hormone,” playing a significant role in sexual arousal and maternal bonding. But a new study claims there may be a darker side to oxytocin; the way it influences our actions is comparable to the effects of alcohol.
The researchers say both alcohol and oxytocin can cause people to become more aggressive, boastful and envious of others.
Dr. Ian Mitchell, of the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham in the UK, and colleagues publish their findings in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews.
Produced by the hypothalamus in the brain and secreted into the bloodstream by the posterior pituitary gland, oxytocin is a hormone and a brain neurotransmitter that controls lactation and contraction of the womb during childbirth.
Oxytocin is also known to influence emotional, cognitive and social behaviors, including maternal bonding, sexual arousal, anxiety, fear and trust.
According to Dr. Mitchell and colleagues, oxytocin increases behaviors such as altruism, empathy and generosity, making us more willing to trust others, while suppressing prefrontal and limbic cortical circuit activity in the brain to reduce anxiety, fear and stress.
Since alcohol can also trigger such behaviors, the team set out to determine whether alcohol and oxytocin have similar effects on the brain.
Oxytocin and alcohol have similar effects on GABA brain signaling. To reach their findings, the researchers analyzed a number of studies assessing the effects of both oxytocin – administered nasally – and alcohol on the brain.
The team found the two compounds worked in similar ways. Though oxytocin and alcohol target different brain receptors, they both have similar effects on Gamma-Amino Butyric acid (GABA) signaling in the prefrontal cortex and limbic areas of the brain.
“These neural circuits control how we perceive stress or anxiety, especially in social situations such as interviews, or perhaps even plucking up the courage to ask somebody on a date,” says Dr. Mitchell. “Taking compounds such as oxytocin and alcohol can make these situations seem less daunting.”
The team says their findings may explain why many people are tempted by alcohol to ease nervousness. “The idea of ‘Dutch courage’ – having a drink to overcome nerves – is used to battle those immediate obstacles of fear and anxiety. Oxytocin appears to mirror these effects in the lab,” explains study author Dr. Steven Gillespie, also of the School of Psychology.
However, the researchers recommend against the use of both oxytocin and alcohol for boosting confidence, pointing to the negative effects of each compound.