Epigenetics of Oxytocin & Vasopressin

There’s one other part I’d like to go over before we close out this series. This is an entirely different area of human behavior research — particularly about relationships and human bonding — but there is some relevance to this discussion. (As well as mental health in general.)

HE Fisher outlined hormonal roles in attraction, lust, and attachment. The last one involved the interplay of oxytocin and vasopressin. (Source) CS Carter has also looked at these hormones and hypothetical changes under stress and trauma:

  • Normally, oxytocin (OT) and vasopressin (VP) rise together.
  • In acute stress (normal), both OT and VP should spike.
  • In chronic or mild stress, VP will rise more than OT.
  • In intense stress or trauma, the levels can be unpredictable. (Source)

Oxytocin via the oxytocin pathway is associated with a sense of calm and safety, social bonding, trust, and empathy (Source.) It’s also important in labor, delivery, and infant care as it can cause contractions and help a mother produce milk. (When labor is induced, they use a synthetic version of the hormone called “pitocin.”) 

Vasopressin via the vasopressin pathway is associated with social avoidance and anxiety, defensiveness, and aggression. (Source) It’s also referenced in other body processes as ADH (antidiuretic hormone) and AVP (arginine vasopressin which works as a vasoconstrictor and can cause higher blood pressure.)

There’s an important reason they need to work together in human bonding. They help us build affiliation for others while also helping us feel the need to protect them. Otherwise, oxytocin without vasopressin can lead to non-exclusive bonds while vasopressin without oxytocin can lead to anxiety and avoidance. (Source)

The interesting aspect of these hormones / neurotransmitters is that they’re epigenetic. This means that our bodies can learn to adjust long-term output and reaction to stimuli. This also underscores the importance of therapy. Many of these responses are learned over time through toxic workplaces, relationships, or even habits. Just as they didn’t develop overnight, they take time to reframe our reaction.

And for quick reference, Sparapani et al in a breakdown of the biology of vasopressin noted the following:

  • “Patients with certain personality disorders presented high AVP in the cerebrospinal fluid, and often systemically. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Williams syndrome [of which ADHD is a symptom], schizophrenia, depression, social anxiety, and attachment disorders all respond to AVP receptor blockade or seem linked to AVP and OT.” (Source)
  • “Altered AVP signaling has been linked to diabetes insipidus, PKD [polycystic kidney disease], HF [heart failure], and psychiatric conditions including ASD, bipolar, and borderline personality disorder.” (Source)

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