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The effects of oxytocin on eating behaviour and metabolism in humans

Key Points

  • Animal studies indicate that oxytocin is a potent regulator of caloric intake and metabolism; clinical investigations are beginning to translate these findings to humans

  • A single dose of intranasal oxytocin reduces caloric intake in men, particularly of more palatable foods, and these effects could be increased in men with obesity

  • Intranasal oxytocin acutely increases the use of fat as a fuel for the body, but effects of oxytocin in promoting energy expenditure have not been demonstrated in humans

  • An 8-week pilot study of intranasal oxytocin in a small group of men and women with overweight or obesity led to substantial weight loss

  • Independently of effects on body weight, oxytocin might improve glucose homeostasis, but the data are conflicting

  • Pathways that involve oxytocin offer novel therapeutic targets for obesity and metabolic disease

Abstract

Oxytocin, a hypothalamic hormone that is secreted directly into the brain and enters the peripheral circulation through the posterior pituitary gland, regulates a range of physiologic processes, including eating behaviour and metabolism. In rodents and nonhuman primates, chronic oxytocin administration leads to sustained weight reduction by reducing food intake, increasing energy expenditure and inducing lipolysis. Oxytocin might improve glucose homeostasis, independently of its effects on weight. Clinical studies are beginning to translate these important preclinical findings to humans. This Review describes key data linking oxytocin to eating behaviour and metabolism in humans. For example, a single intranasal dose of oxytocin can reduce caloric intake, increase fat oxidation and improve insulin sensitivity in men. Furthermore, a pilot study of 8 weeks of oxytocin treatment in adults with obesity or overweight led to substantial weight loss. Together, these data support further investigation of interventions that target pathways involving oxytocin as potential therapeutics in metabolic disorders, including obesity and diabetes mellitus. Therapeutic considerations and areas for further research are also discussed.

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Figure 1: Hypothesized mechanisms underlying the effects of oxytocin on caloric intake.
Figure 2: Proposed model of the effects of oxytocin on metabolic parameters.

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Acknowledgements

The author acknowledges support from the NIH under award number R01DK109932.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth A. Lawson.

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E.A.L. is on the Scientific Advisory Board of OXT Therapeutics, Inc. E.A.L. has a financial interest in OXT Therapeutics, Inc., a company developing an intranasal oxytocin and long-acting analogues of oxytocin to treat obesity and metabolic disease. E.A.L.'s interests were reviewed and are managed by Massachusetts General Hospital and Partners HealthCare in accordance with their conflicts-of-interest policy.

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Lawson, E. The effects of oxytocin on eating behaviour and metabolism in humans. Nat Rev Endocrinol 13, 700–709 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrendo.2017.115

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