by Elizabeth Millard, Oct. 13, 2020
Oxytocin, a hormone related to feelings of love and bonding, may play a major role in regulating gastrointestinal functions, especially as it pertains to stress, according to the preview of a new study to be published in The Journal of Physiology.
Looking at rats in a controlled laboratory setting, researchers introduced stress through several scenarios, such as by restraining them or forcing them to swim in a container where they couldn't touch the bottom. They then tested the rats' gastric emptying rate—how quickly food leaves the stomach—of a solid meal, along with assessing their hormone levels.
Thirty minutes before the stress tests, researchers injected the rats with a saline solution (control) or a drug designed to trigger the release of oxytocin. They found that oxytocin had a significant effect on gastric emptying. The rats that had been under the most stress had the slowest emptying rate, but when oxytocin was triggered, it increased muscle contractions in the stomach and shortened the delay.
While the results of the study only provide preliminary evidence, they do hold promise for further investigation. The information could lead to new targets for digestive drug development in the future, especially since oxytocin hasn't been investigated as a stress-response hormone in the past.
Reevaluating the Role of Oxytocin
In terms of stress response and gut health, oxytocin has not been thought to be a major player compared to other hormones like cortisol, dopamine, and serotonin.
Serotonin in particular has garnered the most attention. Since it's so strongly connected to mental health, it's often a target in antidepressant medications. About 90% of serotonin is produced in the digestive tract, which then sends signals up to the brain, according to Elaine Hsiao, PhD, research assistant professor of biology and biological engineering at Caltech.
Oxytocin, sometimes called the "love hormone" or the "cuddle hormone" because it's released when people bond socially or physically touch each other, is often highlighted not for its potential role in gut health, but for the birth process. The hormone causes uterine contractions, helps shrink the uterus after delivery, aids in breastfeeding, and promotes mother-child bonding.
A 2007 study in Psychological Science concluded that the higher a woman's oxytocin levels in the first trimester of pregnancy, the more likely she would be to initiate bonding behaviors with a baby, such as singing to the infant.
What This Means for You
You’ve likely experienced the negative effects of stress on your digestion—it can cause all kinds of symptoms like stomach aches, bloating, and nausea.4 Understanding the role of oxytocin on stress and digestion should encourage you to seek out activities that promote the production of this hormone, like working out or spending time with people you love, which in turn could help alleviate the associated gastrointestinal symptoms.
Gut and Brain Health
Highlighting oxytocin's potential role in digestive health adds to evidence about the importance of the gut-brain axis, says Lisa Mosconi, PhD, author of Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power.
"The value of maintaining good gut health for better emotional regulation can't be overstated, because they're so connected," she says, adding that if one is thrown off, the other can be affected, sometimes dramatically. "It's a delicate balance because they're sending messages to each other all the time. But that's also the good news because if you work to improve one, you'll likely see benefits for the other."
The value of maintaining good gut health for better emotional regulation can't be overstated, because they're so connected.
— LISA MOSCONI, PHD
That means taking steps for better brain health—like eating healthy foods and pursuing de-stress strategies—can also be beneficial for your digestion.
Focusing on foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins can be useful for better hormone regulation, but another solid strategy is simply to move more. Potentially a lot more.
“Your brain is wired to respond positively to exercise,” says Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD, author of Habits of a Happy Brain. “When you exercise consistently, your brain gets even more efficient at making and releasing the natural chemicals that keep you upbeat, like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin.”
Although the recent study focused on oxytocin specifically, hormones like these don't work independently, says Breuning. Rather, they are released in combinations that are thought to improve functioning—creating streamlined processes related to everything from blood sugar control to stress relief to digestion.
When you exercise consistently, your brain gets even more efficient at making and releasing the natural chemicals that keep you upbeat, like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin.
— LORETTA GRAZIANO, PHD
Exercise can provide a major boost. Other strategies that could help with oxytocin include:
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March 31, 2021
A new study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences has found that the presence of a stress hormone may aggravate nasal allergies.2 The findings may eventually open the door to new treatments for seasonal allergies in the future.
Here’s what to know about the latest research on the relationship between stress and allergies.
In a study published earlier this month, a team of researchers led by scientists in Osaka, Japan, ran a series of experiments to explore the link between increased allergic reactions and the corticotropin-releasing stress hormone (CRH). Stress causes the body to release CRH, which then helps release cortisol, the primary stress hormone that puts the body in fight-or-flight mode. When people are stressed out, it worsens all allergic conditions. Sinus allergies get worse, and if a person is prone to hives or rashes, that gets worse, too.
— PURVI PARIKH, MD
When the researchers added CRH to a nasal polyp organ culture, they noticed that the number of mast cells, which drive allergic reactions, increased substantially in human nasal mucosa (the lining of the nasal cavity). The reaction also stimulated activity in mast cells, which leads to the release of chemicals that trigger allergic reactions.
“Mast cells have receptors where allergens and antibodies can interact. When the allergen and antibodies get connected to the mast cell, the mast cell extrudes chemicals responsible for itchiness, mucus production, or coughing that can go along with allergy symptoms,” explains Dr. Tiffany Owens, an allergist and immunologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Everyone has mast cells, but not everyone’s mast cells interact with antibodies because the allergy antibodies are made by the individual person.”
The researchers also explored the potential of antalarmin, an experimental drug that blocks CRH receptors, as a treatment for allergies. They found that antalarmin helped prevent stress hormones from increasing the number of mast cells and their activity in the nasal mucosa of mice. Still, more research is needed to determine the effect of the drug on humans.
“We don’t have antalarmin as a treatment we use now, but if it helps prevent stress-related inflammation, it could be a potential treatment option far down the road in the future,” says Dr. Owens.
The findings offer confirmation of what some allergists like Dr. Purvi Parikh, spokesperson for the Allergy & Asthma Network, have seen when treating patients with allergies and high levels of stress.
“When people are stressed out, it worsens all allergic conditions. Sinus allergies get worse, and if a person is prone to hives or rashes, that gets worse, too,” she says. “We also notice that people have anaphylactic reactions even more so when they are under stress, either physical or mental.”
Earlier Research on Stress and Allergies
This new research builds upon earlier studies on the relationship between stress and allergies.
A 2013 study published in Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology found that people who had persistent emotional stress tended to have a higher frequency of allergy flares. However, it did not find that cortisol was associated with allergy symptoms.
It’s hopeful that’s this is not just a pharmaceutical study focused on what drug we can sell you to make this better.
— TIFFANY OWENS, MD
And a randomized controlled trial from 2009 showed that stress and anxiety could worsen and prolong symptoms of allergic rhinitis, a group of nasal symptoms (like sneezing and itchy, watery eyes) that occur when you inhale something you’re allergic to. The latest study helps advance scientific understanding of how a particular stress hormone can lead to an allergic reaction.
“This continues to intrigue us as physicians and as patients, to think about our bodies as this complex machinery interacting with our internal and external environments, and there are many factors involved,” says Dr. Owens. “It’s hopeful that’s this is not just a pharmaceutical study focused on what drug we can sell you to make this better.”
Coping With Allergies
If allergies make you miserable in the spring (or any time of year), consider working with an allergist to control your symptoms. They may recommend medications to ease your symptoms and/or allergy shots (immunotherapy) to build your tolerance to certain allergens, such as pollen. While the research on stress and allergies is promising, experts say that reducing stress probably isn’t enough to provide relief from allergy symptoms.
“I want to stress that this is not a replacement for traditional therapies,” says Dr. Parikh. “Managing stress should be done together with other treatments. Sometimes people think, ‘I’ll do yoga and not take my medications,’ but you should do both if you need them.“
I want to stress that this is not a replacement for traditional therapies. Managing stress should be done together with other treatments.
— PURVI PARIKH, MD
The findings on the latest study are just further evidence that stress reduction should be incorporated into a broader healthy lifestyle routine — not only for people with allergies, but for everyone, says Dr. Owens.
“I do recommend stress reduction, not so much if someone came in and said they have itchy eyes and a runny nose, but more in terms of general health and wellness,” she says. “This is just another encouragement to take care of ourselves, pay attention to what our bodies are telling us, and do the least amount of detriment. We can do some really good things for ourselves by taking time to rest and pay attention to healthy habits.”
What This Means For You
High stress levels can damage your physical and mental health. Now, new research shows that it may also aggravate symptoms of seasonal allergies, which affect up to 60 million people in the U.S. each year.
While experts say that stress reduction is not a substitute for traditional allergy treatment, it can be beneficial to incorporate it into an overall healthy lifestyle routine that may, in turn, improve your symptoms. If your allergies are acting up, get in touch with an allergist to see if medications or immunotherapy can help.
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