Purpose of the Review
In this paper, an oxytocin-deficiency model is presented, which has considerable relevance for patterns of compulsive overeating as described by the food-addiction concept. Both animal research and human investigations are discussed in the context of individual differences in social perception and affiliation, reward processing, stress responsiveness, and eating and other addictive behaviors.
The properties of oxytocin are well-established, indicating that low levels of this hormone are associated with increased food consumption, especially of sweet carbohydrates. Recent evidence suggests, however, that oxytocin has a “conditional” influence on eating and is moderated by various social and environmental conditions such as eating in social situations. Low oxytocin is also related to prosocial deficits including poor pair-bonding, diminished empathy, and a reduction in the rewarding properties of social contact. Oxytocin has also been linked to the increased risk for addictive substance use and abuse.
We propose that a proneness to stress, deficits in social interactions, and a sensitivity to addictive behaviors may render oxytocin-deficient individuals—who are already prone to overconsumption of sweet foods—at increased risk for developing addictive-like patterns of overeating.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Papers of particular interest, published recently, have been highlighted as: •• Of major importance
•• Carter CS. Oxytocin pathways and the evolution of human behavior. Annu Rev Psychol. 2014;65:17–39. This paper presents an evolutionary perspective on human social development and the role of oxytocin in this process—in particular, how it facilitates attachment and social bonding, which allows for the extended period of nurture required for the emergence of human social intelligence
Hrdy SB. Mothers and others: the evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Cambridge: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press; 2009.
Hrdy SB. Variable postpartum responsiveness among humans and other primates with “cooperative breeding”: a comparative and evolutionary perspective. Horm Behav. 2016;77:272–83.
Crespi BJ. Oxytocin, testosterone, and social cognition. Biol Rev. 2016;91:390–408.
Chang WH, Lee IH, Chen KC, Chi MH, Chiu N-T, Yao WJ, et al. Oxytocin receptor gene rs53576 polymorphism modulates oxytocin-dopamine interaction and neuroticism traits—a SPECT study. Psychoneuroendocrinol. 2014;47:212–20.
Stallen M, De Dreu CKW, Shalvi S, Smidts a, Sanfey A. The herding hormone: oxytocin stimulates in-group conformity. Psychol Sci. 2012;23:1288–92.
Striepens N, Matusch A, Kendrick KM, Mihov Y, Elmenhorst D, Becker B, et al. Oxytocin enhances attractiveness of unfamiliar female faces independent of the dopamine reward system. Psychoneuroendocrinol. 2014;39:74–87.
Bartz JA. Oxytocin and the pharmacological dissection of affiliation. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2016;25:104–10.
•• Damiano CR, Aloi J, Dunlop K, Burrus CJ, Mosner MG, Kozink RV, et al. Association between oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene and mesolimbic responses to reward. Mol Autism. 2014;5:7. This study demonstrates that oxytocin modulates mesolimbic reward responses with low levels linked to a diminished capacity to anticipate rewarding events
Feldman R, Zagoory-Sharon O, Weisman O, Schneiderman I, Gordon I, Maoz R, et al. Sensitive parenting is associated with plasma oxytocin and polymorphisms in the OXTR and CD38 genes. Biol Psychiatry. 2012;72:175–81.
Loth E, Poline J-B, Thyreau B, Jia T, Tao C, Lourdusamy A, et al. Oxytocin receptor genotype modulates ventral striatal activity to social cues and response to stressful life events. Biol Psychiatry. 2014;76:367–76.
Di Simplicio M, Harmer CJ. Oxytocin and emotion processing. J Psychopharmacol. 2016;30(11):1156–9.
Massey SH, Backes KA, Schuette SA. Plasma oxytocin concentration and depressive symptoms: a review of current evidence and directions for future research. Dep Anx. 2016;33:316–22.
Feldman R, Weller A, Zagoory-Sharon O, Levine A. Evidence for a neuroendocrinological foundation of human affiliation plasma oxytocin levels across pregnancy and the postpartum period predict mother-infant bonding. Psychol Sci. 2007;18:965–70.
Rubin LH, Carter CS, Bishop JR, Pournajafi-Nazarloo H, Drogos LL, Hill SK, et al. Reduced levels of vasopressin and reduced behavioral modulation of oxytocin in psychotic disorders. Schizophr Bull. 2014;40:1374–84.
Lancaster K, Carter CS, Pournajafi-Nazarloo H, Karaoli T, Lillard TS, Jack A, et al. Plasma oxytocin explains individual differences in neural substrates of social perception. Frontiers Hum Neurosci. 2015;9:132.
Eckstein M, Scheele D, Patin A, Preckel K, Becker B, Walter A, et al. Oxytocin facilitates Pavlovian fear learning in men. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2016;41:932–9.
McQuaid RJ, McInnis OA, Matheson K, Anisman H. Oxytocin and social sensitivity: gene polymorphisms in relation to depressive symptoms and social ideation. Frontiers Hum Neurosci. 2016;10:358.
Scheele D, Striepens N, Kendrick KM, Schwering C, Noelle J, Wille A, et al. Opposing effecs of oxytocin on moral judgement in males and females. Hum Brain Map. 2014;35:6067–76.
•• Olszewski PK, Klockers A, Levine AS. Oxytocin: a conditional anorexigen whose effects on appetite depend on the physiological, behavioural and social contexts. J Neuroendocrinol. 2016;28 doi:10.1111/jne.12376. This paper reviews the current research on the role of oxytocin on the regulation of food consumption and appetite. It also presents current evidence that oxytocin is a conditional anorexigen, which is moderated by various factors including social contexts
Herisson FM, Brooks LL, Waas JR, Levine AS, Olszewski PK. Functional relationship between oxytocin and appetite for carbohydrates versus saccharin. Neuroreport. 2014;25:909–14.
Amico JA, Vollmer RR, Cai H-M, Miedler JA, Rinaman L. Enhanced initial and sustained intake of sucrose solution in mice with an oxytocin gene deletion. Am J Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2005;289:R1798–806.
Billings LB, Spero JA, Vollmer RR, Amico JA. Oxytocin null mice ingest enhanced amounts of sweet solutions during light and dark cycles and during repeated shaker stress. Behav Brain Res. 2006;171(1):134–41.
Plessow F, Marengi DA, Perry SK, Lawson EA. Intranasal oxytocin reduces the expression of impulsive behavior in overweight and obese. Presentation of the annual meeting of the Endrocrine Society, 2016, Boston, April.
Ho JM, Blevins JE. Coming full circle: contributions of central and peripheral oxytocin action to energy balance. Endocrinol. 2013;154(2):589–96.
Ott V, Finlayson G, Lehnert H, Heitmann B, Heinrichs M, Born J, et al. Oxytocin reduces reward-driven food intake in humans. Diabetes. 2013;62:3418–25.
Lawson EA, Marengi DA, DeSanti RL, Holmes TM, Schoenfeld DA. Oxytocin reduces caloric intake in men. Obesity. 2015;23:950–6.
Blevins JE, Graham JL, Morton GJ, Bales KL, Schwartz MW, Baskin DG, et al. Chronic oxytocin administration inhibits food intake, increases energy expenditure, and produces weight loss in fructose-fed rhesus monkeys. Am J Physiol Integr Comp Physiol. 2015;308:R431–8.
Striepens N, Schröter F, Stoffel-Wagner B, Maier W, Hurlemann R, Scheele D. Oxytocin enhances cognitive control of food craving in women. Hum Brain Mapp. 2016;37:4276–85.
Kekic M, McClelland J, Campbell I, Nestler S, Rubia K, David AS, et al. The effects of prefrontal cortex transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) on food craving and temporal discounting in women with frequent food cravings. Appetite. 2014;78:55–62.
Gan H-W, Leeson C, Aitkenhead H, Spoudeas H, Matinez-Barbera JP, Dattani M. Oxytocin deficiency is associated with hyperphagia and weight gain in hypothalamic and common obesity: a first-in-humans proof-of-concept study. Horm Res Paediatr. 2016;86(suppl 1):421.
Gosnell BA, Levine AS. Reward systems and food intake: role of opioids. Int J Obesity. 2009;33:S54–8.
Herisson FM, Waas JR, Fredriksson R, Schiotht HB, Levine AS, Olszewski PK. Oxytocin acting in the nucleus accumbens core decreases food intake. J Neuroendocrinol. 2016;28 doi:10.1111/jne.12381.
Olszewski PK, Allen K, Levine AS. Effect of oxytocin receptor blockade on appetite for sugar is modified by social context. Appetite. 2015;86:81–7.
Carter GG, Wilkinson GS. Intranasal oxytocin increases social grooming and food sharing in the common vampire bat Desmodus rotundus. Horm Behav. 2015;75:150–3.
Wittig RM, Crockford C, Deschner T, Langergraber KE, Ziegler TE, Zuberbuhler K. Food sharing is linked to urinary oxytocin levels and bonding in related and unrelated wild chimpanzees. Proc R Soc B. 2014;281(1778):20133096.
Douglas AJ, Johnstone LE, Leng G. Neuroendocrine mechanisms of change in food intake during pregnancy: a potential role for brain oxytocin. Physiol Behav. 2007;91(4):352–65.
Neumann ID, Slattery DA. Oxytocin in general anxiety and social fear: a transactional approach. Biol Psychiatry. 2016;79:213–21.
Elmadih A, Wan MW, Numan M, Elliott R, Downey D, Abel KM. Does oxytocin modulate variation in maternal caregiving in healthy new mothers? Brain Res. 2014;1580:143–50.
Johnson JL, Buisman-Pijlman FTA. Adversity impacting on oxytocin and behaviour: timing matters. Behav Pharmacol. 2016;27:657–71.
Capello AEM, Markus CB. Effect of sub chronic tryptophan supplementation in stress-induced cortisol and appetite in subjects differing in 5-HTTLPR genotype and trait neuroticism. Psychoneuroendocrinol. 2014;45:96–107.
Lee MR, Weerts EM. Oxytocin for the treatment of drug and alcohol use disorders. Behav Pharmacol. 2016;27:640–8.
Cox EQ, Stuebe A, Pearson B, Grewen K, Rubinow D, Meltzer-Brody S. Oxytocin and HPA stress axis reactivity in postpartum women. Psychoneuroendocrinol. 2015;55:164–72.
Di Segni M, Patrono E, Patella L, Puglisi-Allegra, Ventura R. Animal models of compulsive eating behavior. Nutrients. 2014;6:4591–609.
Lo Coco G, Sutton R, Tasca GA, Salerno L, Oieni V, Compare A. Does the interpersonal model generalize to obesity without binge eating? Eur Eat Disorders Rev. 2016;24:391–8.
Pivarunas B, Connor BT. Impulsivity and emotion dysregulation as predictors of food addiction. Eat Behav. 2015;19:9–14.
Duchesne M, de Oliveira Falcone EM, de Freitas SR, D’Augustin JF, Marinho V, Appolinario JC. Assessment of interpersonal skills in obese women with binge eating disorder. J Health Psychol. 2011;17(7):1065–75.
Blomquist KK, Ansell EB, White MA, Masheb RM, Grilo CM. Interpersonal problems and developmental trajectories of binge eating disorder. Compr Psychiatry. 2012;53:1088–95.
Ivanova IV, Tasca GA, Proulx G, Bissada H. Does the interpersonal model apply across eating disorder diagnostic groups? A structural equation modeling approach. Compr Psychiatry. 2015;63:80–7.
Bahi A. The oxytocin receptor impairs ethanol reward in mice. Physiol Behav. 2015;139:321–7.
Baracz SJ, Cornish JL. The neurocircuitry involved in oxytocin modulation of methamphetamine addiction. Front Neuroendocrinol. 2016;43:1–18.
Hicks C, Cornish JL, Baracz SJ, Suraev A, McGregor IS. Adolescent pre-treatment with oxytocin protects against adult methamphetamine-seeking behavior in female rats. Addict Biol. 2016;21(2):304–15.
Vaht M, Kurrikoff T, Laas K, Veidebaum T, Harro J. Oxytocin receptor gene variation rs53576 and alcohol abuse in a longitudinal population representative study. Psychoneuroendocrinol. 2016;74:333–41.
Mitchell JM, Arcuni PA, Weinstein D, Woolley JD. Intranasal oxytocin selectively modulates social perception, craving, and approach behavior in subjects with alcohol use disorder. J Addict Med. 2016;10(3):182–9.
Miller MA, Bershad A, King AC, Lee R, de Wit H. Intranasal oxytocin dampens cue-elicited cigarette craving in daily smokers: a pilot study. Behav Pharmacol. 2016;27(8):697–703.
Walum H, Waldman ID, Young LJ. Statistical and methodological considerations for the interpretation of intranasal oxytocin studies. Biol Psychiatry. 2016;79:251–7.
Raudino A, Fergusson DM, Horwood J. The quality of parent/child relationships in adolescence is associated with poor adult psychosocial adjustment. J Adolesc. 2013;36:331–40.
Pruimboom L, Reheis D. Intermittent drinking, oxytocin, and human health. Med Hypoth. 2016;92:80–3.
Quirin M, Kuhl J, Dusing R. Oxytocin buffers cortisol responses to stress in individuals with impaired emotion regulation abilities. Psychoneuroendocrinol. 2011;36:898–904.
Koob GF, Volkow ND. Neurobiology of addiction: a neurocircuitry analysis. Lancet Psychiatry. 2016;3:760–3.
Ouzir M, Errami M. Etiological theories of addiction: a comprehensive update on neurobiological, genetic and behavioural vulnerability. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2016;148:59–68.
Alsio J, Olszewski PK, Levine AS, Schioth. Feed-forward mechanisms: addiction-like behavioral and molecular adaptations. Front Neuroendocinol. 2012;33:127–39.
Logan AC, Jacka FN. Nutritional psychiatry research: an emerging discipline and its intersection with global urbanization, environmental challenges and the evolutionary mismatch. J Physiol Anthropol. 2014;33:22.
Volkow ND, Koob G, McLellan AT. Neurobiologic advance from the brain disease model of addiction. New Engl J Med. 2016;374:363–71.
Berridge KC. Food reward: brain substrates of wanting and liking. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 1996;20(1):1–25.
Davis C. Evolutionary and neuro-psychological perspectives on addictive behaviours and addictive substances: relevance to the ‘food addiction’ construct. Subst Abuse Rehab. 2014;5:129–37.
•• Mitra A, Gosnell BA, Schiöth HB, Grace MK, Klockars A, Olszewski PK, et al. Chronic sugar intake dampens feeding-related activity of neurons synthesizing a satiety mediator, oxytocin. Peptides. 2010;31:1346–52. Animal studies demonstrate that chronic consumption of sugar diminishes the anorexigenic effects of oxytocin by blunting activity in the pathways that signal satiety. Such an effect may lead to generalized overeating
Gearhardt A, Davis C, Kushner R, Brownell K. The addiction potential of hyperpalatable foods. Curr Drug Abuse Rev. 2011;4:140–5.
Georgiou P, Zanos P, Hourani S, Kitchen I, Bailey A. Cocaine abstinence induces emotional impairment and brain region-specific upregulation of the oxytocin receptor binding. Behav Neurosci. 2016;44:2446–54.
McGregor IS, Bowen MT. Breaking the loop: oxytocin as a potential treatment for drug addiction. Horm Behav. 2012;61:331–9.
Carroll ME, Lynch WJ. How to study sex differences in addiction using animal models. Addict Biol. 2016;21:1007–29.
Reichelt AC, Abbott KN, Westbrook RF, Morris MJ. Differential motivational profiles following adolescent sucrose access in male and female rats. Physiol Behav. 2016;157:13–9.
Davis C. The epidemiology and genetics of binge eating disorder. CNS Spectrums. 2015;20:522–9.
Carroll ME, Smethells JR. Sex differences in behavioral dyscontrol: role in drug addiction and novel treatments. Frontiers Psychiatry. 2016;6:175.
Conflict of Interest
Dr. Caroline Davis and Elnaz Moghimi declare that they have no conflicts of interest.
Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent
This article does not contain any studies with human or animal subjects performed by any of the authors.
This article is part of the Topical Collection on Food Addiction
About this article
Cite this article
Davis, C., Moghimi, E. ‘Oxytocin Deficiency’: Implications for the Food-Addiction Construct. Curr Addict Rep 4, 158–164 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40429-017-0135-1
- Reward sensitivity
- Addictive behaviors
- Food addiction