Friday, October 9, 2015

Better Living Through Biochemistry?

Enough with the politics. Enough with everyone’s political passions. Today, we have some fascinating news from the better-living-through-biochemistry front.

The news concerns two substances that are fundamentally unrelated. Yet, both are widely touted as highly beneficial to your mental and your physical health. I am talking about oxytocin and anti-oxidants.

Beyond that superficial link, there is no real connection between the two.

You know about oxytocin, the great biochemical hope for peace and harmony. Since women seem to have much more of this chemical, it is assumed that giving it to non-women will make them more peaceful and loving and will even induce them to cuddle more.

Scientific American has the story:

Many studies trumpet the positive effects of oxytocin. The hormone facilitates bonding, increases trust and promotes altruism. Such findings earned oxytocin its famous nickname, the “love hormone.” But more recent research has shown oxytocin has a darker side, too: it can increase aggression, risk taking and prejudice. A new analysis of this large body of work reveals that oxytocin's effects on our brain and behavior actually look a lot like another substance that can cut both ways: alcohol….

Researchers led by Ian Mitchell, a psychologist at the University of Birmingham in England, conducted the meta-analysis, which reveals that both oxytocin and alcohol reduce fear, anxiety and stress while increasing trust, generosity and altruism. Yet both also increase aggression, risk taking and “in-group” bias—favoring people similar to ourselves at the expense of others, according to the paper published in August in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews.

It’s a little like empathy. It promises to make you more loving and caring, but it can also make you more aggressive and more bigoted. Who knew?

Better yet, it works like alcohol:

Oxytocin and alcohol therefore both have the general effect of tamping down brain activity—perhaps explaining why they both lower inhibitions.

It’s not a total loss. The researchers believe that they might be able to use oxytocin to treat alcoholism.

These findings suggest getting “love drunk” may impede a person from getting truly drunk—or at least make getting drunk less appealing. They also offer a possible biological explanation for why social support is so effective at helping people beat addictions. The researchers' biggest hope for now is that in the near future, the similarity between these two chemicals will allow scientists to develop oxytocin-based treatments for alcoholics.

As for antioxidants, these have often been touted as miracle substances. The more you ingest, the less likely you will be to get cancer. It has something to do with free radicals… which suggests a political agenda. Of course. Now, new research suggests that anti-oxidants facilitate the spread of cancers like prostate cancer, lung cancer and melanoma. Oops.

A new study has shown antioxidants doubled the spread of melanoma in mice—adding fresh evidence that taking antioxidant vitamin supplements may fuel the growth of cancer cells.

Researchers at the Sahlgrenska Academy in Gothenburg have found that the antioxidant N-acetylcysteine or NAC, which is available in some nutritional supplements, doubled the rate at which malignant melanoma--the most serious form of skin cancer--spread to the lymph nodes of mice. Repeating the experiment in human cells grown in lab cups, the scientists found that cancerous skin cells inserted with NAC and vitamin E, another strong antioxidant, became better at invading adjacent tissue.


Previous studies have shown an increased risk of prostate cancer for patients taking vitamin E supplements and have linked antioxidants to the spread of lung tumors in both mice and human cells. The Sahlgrenska study is the first to demonstrate that some antioxidants may cause malignant melanoma to metastasize at a quicker pace.

The researchers say that they are only concerned with the effect of anti-oxidant supplements. They see no problems arising from eating anti-oxidant rich foods. So, you don't have to throw out all of that pomegranate juice. Whew.

1 comment:

Ares Olympus said...

The "darkside of oxytocin" goes back 4 years, but I hadn't heard the comparison to alcohol before.

Its curious to consider that perhaps (nonnatural) alcohol mimics (natural) oxyticin in reducing inhibitions, which is helpful for sexual relations.

And I also remember the idea that alcohol doesn't "create" aggression but it simply makes existing aggression to the surface when inhibitions have been weakened. So "bad drunks" are already hostile, but are "bad oxytocins" already hostile?

Whatever the truth, it makes sense to say we're all "vulnerable" to biochemistry, and it can't hurt to have a little more objective knowledge how our biology works, and then you can recognize your free will still exists if you have some self-awareness, so alcohol or oxytocin or whatever can't make you do something you wouldn't otherwise do.

On the other hand, if we discover the maternal or paternal "instincts" are largely about biochemistry, its 90% good to give you the energy to be a good parent, even if you still need self-awareness when the 10% bad comes along, all that helicopter stuff for instance.