New Research Reveals the Love Hormone’s Link To Stress and Digestive Problems

We know oxytocin peaks when we’re in a new relationship and plays an important role in reproduction. But new research has revealed that the love hormone also has a part to play in some other, less loved-up parts of our lives…

The Journal of Physiology recently published a study that shows how oxytocin is linked to stress’ disruption of digestion such as bloating, discomfort, nausea, and diarrhea.  

Stress disrupts gastrointestinal functions and causes a delay in gastric emptying (i.e. how quickly food leaves the stomach). This delay causes bloating, discomfort, and nausea and accelerates colon transit, which causes diarrhea.  This is why stress and bathroom troubles often come up at the same time.

Oxytocin, an anti-stress hormone, is released from the hypothalamus in the brain which acts to counteract the effects of stress. For a long time, the actions of oxytocin were believed to occur due to its release into the blood with only minor effects on the nerves within the brain that regulate gastrointestinal functions, but this new research, conducted at Penn State University College of Medicine, has shown that oxytocin circuits play a major role in how the stomach responds to stress.

Activation of these oxytocin circuits reversed the delay in gastric emptying that occurs normally in response to stress, by increasing muscle contractions (motility) of the stomach, while inhibition of these neurocircuits prevented adaptation to stress.  

The ability to respond appropriately to stress is important for normal physiology functions. Inappropriate responses to stress, or the inability to adapt to stress, triggers and worsens the symptoms of many gastrointestinal disorders including delayed gastric emptying and accelerated colon transit.  

Previous studies have shown that the nerves and neurocircuits that regulate the function of gastric muscle and emptying respond to stress by changing their activity and responses.  

In order to identify targets for more effective treatments of disordered gastric responses to stress, it is important to first understand how stress normally affects the functions of the stomach. Their study provided new information about the role that oxytocin plays in controlling these nerves and circuits during stress and may identify new targets for drug development. 

Commenting on the study R Alberto Travagli said:  “Women are more vulnerable to stress and stress-related pathologies, such as anxiety and depression, and report a higher prevalence in gastrointestinal disorders. Our previous studies showed that vagal neural circuits are organized differently in males versus females. We are now finalizing a series of studies that investigate the role and the mechanisms through which oxytocin modulates gastric functions in stressed females. This will help to develop targeted therapies to provide relief for women with gastrointestinal disorders.”  

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