Woman without oxytocin

Let me share with you an emerging experience that my team and I are uncovering, a phenomenon I call the “Oxytocin Deficiency Syndrome,” or ODS.

You may already recognize the hormone oxytocin as “the hormone of love,” given its association with feelings of affection. Anyone who has experienced love for another person, a child, pet, etc. has experienced a surge in oxytocin. It is also the hormone of empathy and of being able to understand someone else’s point of view.

Therapeutically, administration of oxytocin was thought to be useful for nothing more than provoking uterine contraction to induce labor and deliver a baby. If a pregnant mom, for example, wants to deliver her baby at 8 am on Wednesday, August 23rd, she would be admitted to the hospital on the chosen day, then given an injection of oxytocin that promptly induced uterine contraction, cervical relaxation, and delivery of the infant. This effect develops because, in the days leading up to delivery, oxytocin receptors in the uterus increase 200-fold, making it much more receptive to the hormone’s effects. More recently, intranasal administration of oxytocin has been used to stimulate release of breast milk. In other words, until recently, oxytocin was viewed as a hormone with crucial functions relevant only to childbearing. Case closed.

Or so it was thought.

Oxytocin has more recently been associated with a multitude of health effects that include:

  • Mental/emotional effects–empathy, affection, recognition of social cues (e.g., facial expressions), reduction of social anxiety. Preliminary evidence even suggests that oxytocin blocks many of the phenomena of cellular aging (including telomere length) caused by social isolation.
  • Maintenance of skin health–sebum production, dermal collagen production, fibroblast activity
  • Maintenance of muscle mass–Muscle is something we lose as we age, losing approximately a third, often more, of youthful muscle mass, an effect at least partly attributable to declining oxytocin.
  • Maintenance of libido–and mating/reproductive behavior associated with libido
  • Maintenance of bone density–that we likewise lose with aging, partially restored with increased oxytocin
  • Maintenance of sleep structure–influencing duration of sleep and duration of deep sleep and REM
  • Suppression of appetite–the so-called “anorexigenic” effect. This leads to weight loss.
  • Increased lipolysis–i.e., fat “burning”
  • Increased release of growth hormone
  • Increased volume of testicular Leydig cells that produce testosterone in males
  • Maintenance of the immune response–including T-cell immunity and thymic volume (The thymus is the seat of T-cell immunity.)

With such an impressive array of physiological effects, and a track record of safety with virtually no adverse effects (except, oddly, for occasional aggression observed in some children with autism and a condition called Prader-Willi syndrome), it could be advantageous to restore oxytocin levels that can drop as we age.

Are there some people who have lower oxytocin levels than others? Absolutely. My team and I have been assessing baseline oxytocin levels and, lo and behold, there is wide variation: some start high, many start low, some start with nearly zero oxytocin.  I label people with low starting levels “Oxytocin Deficiency Syndrome.” As you would predict from the list of oxytocin’s effects, deficiency of oxytocin can be experienced as lack of empathy, reduced ability to interpret social cues, rapidly aging skin, loss of muscle mass, loss of libido, loss of bone density, disrupted sleep, increased appetite, weight gain, and reduced immunity.

How to restore oxytocin and reverse these phenomena? Oxytocin injection is impractical, of course, especially since the effects of this route of administration last only a few minutes. You could take oxytocin via intranasal inhalation, but that requires a prescription, delivers oxytocin to the brain and not very effectively to the rest of the body, and also lasts no more than 90 minutes. Taking oral tablets or capsules is ineffective, as oxytocin, being a peptide, is rapidly degraded to single amino acids in the upper gastrointestinal tract, rendering it completely ineffective. Compounding pharmacies make sublingual troches or tablets, but they have zero human evidence for effectiveness.

Lactobacillus reuteri to the rescue. Recall that 96% of people have lost this crucial microbe, one among many microbes lost from the modern human microbiome due to antibiotics and other factors. We know that restoration of L. reuteri increases oxytocin levels. My preliminary evidence suggests that people who begin with lower levels of oxytocin are the most likely to experience benefits such as smoother skin, deeper sleep, and suppression of appetite. Ideally, we would first have your baseline oxytocin level assessed to know whether you are likely to experience benefit or not. Unfortunately, various measures of oxytocin remain a research tool and are not yet available through clinical labs. So we are left somewhat in the dark for the present, just consuming the yogurt in the hopes that you will be among those with partial or full responses. In future, I’d like to see everyone have a baseline oxytocin level obtained to know just how much benefit you can expect by restoring this hormone.

If you have not yet begun to make L. reuteri yogurt, see this Wheat Belly Blog post that shows how to make it.