Wouldn’t it be lovely if a nasal spray with a naturally occurring feel-good hormone could keep you from eating carbs and sugar when you’re stressed?
What if it were a natural cure for emotional eating? A way to help you resist the lure of chocolate cookies when you’re not really hungry?
That’s the promise behind recent studies on oxytocin, often called the “love hormone” and sometimes the “moral molecule” because it fosters mother-child bonding, romantic attachments and community togetherness. Now new studies report that it can help with appetite control.
No wonder there’s a rush to develop this into the latest weight-loss drug. But routine long-term self-medicating with human hormones, which are powerful and complex, raises safety issues. Nor have weight-loss drugs proven to be particularly effective—or safe.
The good news is that you don’t need a drug. You can start taking advantage of these new insights into your body’s natural way of controlling stress eating right now. Here’s how…
SPRAYING AWAY OVEREATING
Oxytocin appears to have very specific effects on appetite. Animal and human studies have found that it…
- Curbs cravings for carbs and, especially, sugar. According to one scientific review, it “specifically dampens the motivation to consume sweet-tasting food.”
- Cuts snacking behavior—but only when you’re not hungry.
- Reduces the blood sugar response to a meal.
- Calms by reducing levels of stress hormones such as cortisol.
There are only a handful of human studies…
- In a Harvard study, 25 young men were given large portions of breakfast. On days when they got a nasal oxytocin spray rather than a placebo spray, they took in 122 fewer calories.
- In a German study, 20 healthy men were given either an oxytocin spray or a placebo spray before breakfast, when they were hungry. It had no effect on how much they ate. But then they were also offered chocolate cookies after breakfast, when they weren’t hungry—and on oxytocin days, they consumed 25% fewer calories from the cookies.
- In another study in China, 20 overweight men and women who were given oxytocin spray four times a day (before each meal and before bedtime) lost about 20 pounds on average over eight weeks. It was a pilot study, and it didn’t compare them to a placebo group, but it suggests that the hormone may help with weight loss.
- In a South Korean study, oxytocin reduced the amount of food that 34 women with bulimia ate—but didn’t affect 33 healthy women with no eating disorders.
Let’s be clear—there’s still plenty that we don’t know about this powerful hormone and its effects on appetite. But it does appear to help us calm down and be less likely to turn to sweets for a reward when we’re not really hungry.
Here are some ways to increase it naturally.
HOW TO BOOST THE LOVE HORMONE
To learn natural ways to enhance oxytocin, we checked in with the work of Paul J. Zak, PhD, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and professor of economics at Claremont Graduate University. He’s the author of the book, The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity. (It’s about—you guessed it—oxytocin.) Here are some of his lab-tested tips for increasing your body’s levels of the hormone…
- “Listen” with your eyes. When you’re with someone, give him or her your complete attention.
- Give gifts. Both giving and receiving gifts boosts the hormone.
- Share a meal. Even in animal studies, sharing food is linked with more oxytocin.
- Pet your dog or stroke your cat.
- Use the “L” word. As Dr. Zak wrote in Psychology Today, “Tell those around you that you love them. Oxytocin is the love molecule, so it is part of our evolved biology to love others.” That includes both brotherly love and sexual love, he adds. “You’ve got to put it out there to get it back. With friends, too, and maybe even at work.”
- Give eight hugs a day. Dr. Zak trained himself to hug people instead of shaking hands. “I’m a natural introvert,” he wrote in an article on CNN, “who’s learned to revel in community.”
Will all this help you resist that piece of cake? No guarantees, but there’s growing evidence that the love hormone just might give you an edge over emotional eating—without a prescription. For more tips, see the Bottom Line Guide to Conquering Your Cravings.