We know that love can make your brain feel good, but it has a bearing on your body, too. A study from the University of California-Berkeley, published in Nature Communications, found that oxytoxin, the hormone that’s most commonly associated with love and social bonding, can build and regenerate muscles and stave off sarcopenia—age-related muscle breakdown—as you get older. So if you’re in love, it might help to keep you strong, especially as you age. And if you’re not in love, you can fake it with nasal spray.
Irinia Conboy, an associate professor of Bioengineering at Berkeley who led the research team, studies degenerative diseases, and how bodies can regenerate new tissue. She’s been trying to find ways to combat aging and the muscle loss associated with getting older using stem cells and other regenerative tissue. “Since starting my lab in 2005 at Berkeley we have been working on finding molecules that emulate the positive effects of young blood, and oxytocin was one of the most promising candidates,” she says.
There is a wide body of research about how oxytocin, a hormone released by our pituitary gland, plays into interpersonal relationships and how it impacts our brains, but not a lot about how it can change us physically. Conboy says that her research aligns with previous studies that show how oxytocin levels dropped in postmenopausal women with osteoporosis, but other than that most of the existing research is more psychological than physical.
"Oxytocin could be potentially used to combat muscle tissue wasting caused by aging, disease, and immobility."
Tissue regeneration is an area where Conboy thinks oxytocin could have a really significant impact, and soon. Already approved by the Food and Drug Administration for human use, oxytocin is, Conboy explains, a “physiological hormone with no known side effects and no association with cancer.” She says that in her lab they joke that everyone is happy because there’s so much oxytocin in the environment.
Conboy’s most recent study identified a drop in plasmic levels of oxytocin in aging mice, and showed how bumping those levels led to increased strength and muscle building. In tracking hormone levels during a different study, she and her team found lowered levels of oxytocin in older mice. When they injected the older mice with oxytocin they saw change in muscle tone within two weeks, and it was significant. “Subcutaneous injections of oxytocin to old mice, equivalent to 85-year-old people, enhanced their muscle repair, making it similar to young animals, equivalent to 20-year-old people,” Conboy says.
Oxytocin doesn’t just tone you up. It’s both a hormone and a neurotransmitter, which means that when it’s pumped out from your pituitary gland it spurs action in both your brain and your body. Mentally, it’s associated with positive emotions, like empathy, trust, and arousal, and it has been tied to fighting anorexia and to helping mothers bond with their babies. (Artificial oxytocin is even the main component of Pitocin, the drug that’s frequently used to induce labor.)
There are current clinical trials currently underway linking oxytocin to lessening the social impacts of autism, but some of that research has been fraught. In theory it’s a naturally occurring molecule that solves social and relational issues, but it’s not that straightforward, and because interest in oxytocin is relatively new, the long-term impacts aren’t yet clear. A study released in January from the Concordia University psychology department, for example, found that elevated oxytocin levels made people overly sensitive to social cues. You can’t just load yourself up with it and be happy. It’s also been shown to increase envy and decrease cooperation.
But when it comes to physical outcomes, which is what Conboy is focusing on, there have been a lack of negative side effects, even in high doses, which is both promising and rare. When she injected young, healthy mice that had normal levels of oxytocin with more oxytocin, nothing happened. Their cells didn’t regenerate at unhealthy levels. That often happens with other tissue-regenerating molecules and it’s associated with cancer, which means the FDA won’t approve them. Since oxytocin hasn’t been found to do that, it bodes well for human use of the hormone.
Not only can oxytocin build muscle and keep you strong as you get older, it can also help you heal faster, which is where Conboy thinks it can be really helpful. “With additional studies in animals, oxytocin could be potentially used to combat muscle tissue wasting caused by aging, disease, immobility, like in bed riddance after a major surgery, and weightlessness,” she says. “We also have reasons to believe that oxytocin might prevent osteoporosis and obesity.”