Is love a diabetes treatment? Studies are finding that oxytocin, the “love hormone” or “bonding hormone,” improves health in diabetes. More love equals lower glucose levels. What do these findings mean for people with diabetes?
Oxytocin is one of the oldest hormones in the world. The oxytocin gene first evolved around 500 million years ago. Virtually all vertebrates have it in some form. We can’t live without it, but what does it do?
Shortly after its discovery, oxytocin was found to stimulate the release of milk in nursing mothers. If your body gets a surge of oxytocin when you touch or see someone, you will love that person. You will give them things you would normally keep for yourself, like turning your limited supply of food into mother’s milk and feeding it to them.
Oxytocin also promotes trust. Without it, there would be no society, because people wouldn’t trust each other enough to cooperate. Oxytocin also calms fears and can reduce anxiety. People feel happier and safer when they have some in their blood. On the physical level, it seems to help wound healing and may reduce symptoms of autism.
Oxytocin is a very complicated protein, made up of nine separate amino acids. Its chemical formula is C43H66N12O12S2. That is a big molecule! There’s a picture of it here.
(One wonders how such a thing evolved. It’s hard to imagine it could have happened at random.)
What about diabetes?
Recently, scientists have been looking at oxytocin’s effect on health. They are finding strong connections with diabetes and with weight. A study by Chinese and American scientists found that oxytocin reversed insulin resistance and improved glucose tolerance in obese mice. Weight loss followed, but by then the mice’s insulin function was already much improved.
They also studied a group of obese people without diabetes. They found that good cholesterol went up and bad cholesterol, weight, and after-meal blood glucose levels all went down with oxytocin.
The digestive system breaks oxytocin down, so it cannot be taken by mouth. In studies, people breathe oxytocin spray from a nasal inhaler.
Oxytocin analogs (synthetics) can be injected and last much longer than natural oxytocin. The best known is Pitocin, given in childbirth to stimulate labor. Some of these analogs are being studied for diabetes treatment.
A German study published in the journal Diabetes found that after inhaling oxytocin, male subjects had lower levels of cortisol and other stress hormones. They ate less and had lower post-meal sugar levels. This study was based on previous studies in rats that found the same thing.
You probably know that diabetes damages blood vessels. Our bodies can repair them, but they need active, healthy progenitor cells (similar to stem cells) to make new vessels. A Korean study found that oxytocin heals stem cells that become new vessels. The findings were published in BMC Cell Biology in 2013.
A study by researchers from Brazil and Canada found that oxytocin lowers blood pressure, opens (dilates) blood vessels, and reduces the harmful effects of inflammation and oxidation.
How to get more oxytocin
You can’t take oxytocin in pills. Perhaps it will be available in nasal inhalers or injections at some point, but right now we have to make our own. And the main source for it is other people.
Dr. Paul J. Zak, who wrote the book on oxytocin called The Moral Molecule, says touch is the most important source for oxytocin. This could be a hug or a warm handshake. Try getting a massage. Or giving one. Sex is an even better source, and orgasm may be the best source of all.
It’s not all about touch, though. Dr. Zak told Prevention magazine that watching a movie with someone, especially an emotionally powerful movie, will build oxytocin. Walking with others is an oxytocin-building form of exercise.
When you act in a trusting way towards another person, that person’s oxytocin level will go up. When people trust you, your oxytocin rises. Maybe honesty is the best health policy.
Bottom line is that we don’t know yet how great the health benefits of oxytocin will be. Perhaps someday it will be a drug or a supplement. But getting more love, more touch, and more trust will give you some of the benefits now, and the side effects are all good. Maybe love will turn out to be your best medicine.