‘Cuddle Chemical’ Oxytocin Relieves Alcohol Withdrawal

Oxytocin is best known for its role in creating social bonds, but it may also forge the chains of addiction.

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The “love hormone” oxytocin can relieve symptoms of withdrawal in people recovering from alcoholism, according to a small new study.

Research has long suggested that oxytocin— called the “love” or “hug” hormone  for its role in social bonding— is a complicated chemical. It is released during orgasm and birth and other bonding moments between lovers or family members,  but oxytocin may also help create the unhealthy ties that bind alcoholics and addicts to their drugs of choice.

Indeed, in rodents, oxytocin can successfully fight unpleasant alcohol and heroin withdrawal symptoms. And if given before the addiction even occurs, the hormone may even prevent the development of tolerance and symptoms of physical dependence.

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The new study included 11 people with alcoholism severe enough to produce withdrawal symptoms, but not so severe that this withdrawal would produce potentially life-threatening seizures.

That was important, because during detox, people with alcoholism are typically given benzodiazepines.  These are drugs like Valium (diazepam) or Ativan (lorazepam) and they relieve withdrawal symptoms, including seizures.  People who suffer seizures must be given regular doses of the drugs; others can just take them as needed for comfort.   The doses taken by those not at risk of seizures, consequently, provide a good measure of how bad the withdrawal is.

And oxytocin was found to help dramatically.  Those given the hormone required nearly five times less lorazepam to get through detox, compared to those on placebo.  They also had less anxiety.

“Our results are the first evidence that [oxytocin] may block alcohol withdrawal symptoms in humans,” the authors write.  They say, however, that the results should be considered “very preliminary” because of the extremely small number of participants.

Oxytocin itself is not addictive:  most people given a nasal spray containing the hormone cannot distinguish it from placebo, although about 1/3 of men get erections and people do become more trusting and cooperative in some settings.  It does not automatically cause people to fall in love either, at least not in any of the research conducted so far.

So why might it be involved in addiction?  It’s not yet clear but some research suggests that oxytocin essentially “wires” your lover or child to your reward system, so that it is activated and you feel good when the person is present— and not so good when he or she is not there or you fear the loss of the relationship.  The oxytocin itself isn’t rewarding:  it is simply connecting the reward with the memory of the person and the relationship. In the case of addiction, it could instead “wire” the system to the presence or absence of the drug.  Increasing oxytocin levels, therefore, might cue the reward system to react the way it does in the presence of the drug, relieving withdrawal.

The research was led by Cort Pederson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and published in Alcoholism:  Clinical and Experimental Research.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.