When you're cuddling with someone special, you may feel butterflies in your stomach—but scientists now say the feel-good hormone that's released when you're in love may also be playing another part when it comes to your GI tract. Researchers have long known that when people are stressed, the brain's hypothalamus releases the anti-stress hormone oxytocin. Up till now, oxytocin's stress-relieving effects were thought to be the result of it being absorbed into the blood. Now, however, in a study laid out in the Journal of Physiology, researchers out of Penn State's College of Medicine have discovered the hormone also appears to play a significant role when it comes to the nerves in the brain that manage gastrointestinal functions. Most notably: Oxytocin appears to be able to reverse a stress-induced condition that can lead to stomach issues such as bloating, nausea, diarrhea, and other discomfort.
Basically, per a release, when a person is stressed, her system of "gastric emptying" (which involves food exiting the stomach) is slowed down, leading to the aforementioned stomach problems. Researchers found, however, that by activating the neurocircuits that oxytocin typically acts upon, gastric emptying was put back on track by causing muscle contractions in the stomach; inhibiting those neurocircuits led right back to that gastric delay. One demographic in particular may especially benefit down the road from these findings. "Women are more vulnerable to stress and stress-related pathologies, such as anxiety and depression, and report a higher prevalence in gastrointestinal disorders," study co-author R. Alberto Travagli says. He adds that, by studying oxytocin more, scientists may be able to "develop targeted therapies to provide relief for women with gastrointestinal disorders." (Read more discoveries stories.)