Revisiting the wandering womb: Oxytocin in endometriosis and bipolar disorder

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Abstract

Hippocrates attributed women's high emotionality – hysteria - to a ‘wandering womb’. Although hysteria diagnoses were abandoned along with the notion that displaced wombs cause emotional disturbance, recent research suggests that elevated levels of oxytocin occur in both bipolar disorder and endometriosis, a gynecological condition involving migration of endometrial tissue beyond the uterus. We propose and evaluate the hypothesis that elevated oxytocinergic system activity jointly contributes to bipolar disorder and endometriosis. First, we provide relevant background on endometriosis and bipolar disorder, and then we examine evidence for comorbidity between these conditions. We next: (1) review oxytocin's associations with personality traits, especially extraversion and openness, and how they overlap with bipolar spectrum traits; (2) describe evidence for higher oxytocinergic activity in both endometriosis and bipolar disorder; (3) examine altered hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis functioning in both conditions; (4) describe data showing that medications that treat one condition can improve symptoms of the other; (5) discuss fitness-related impacts of endometriosis and bipolar disorder; and (6) review a pair of conditions, polycystic ovary syndrome and autism, that show evidence of involving reduced oxytocinergic activity, in direct contrast to endometriosis and bipolar disorder. Considered together, the bipolar spectrum and endometriosis appear to involve dysregulated high extremes of normally adaptive pleiotropy in the female oxytocin system, whereby elevated levels of oxytocinergic activity coordinate outgoing sociality with heightened fertility, apparently characterizing, overall, a faster life history. These findings should prompt a re-examination of how mind-body interactions, and the pleiotropic endocrine systems that underlie them, contribute to health and disease.

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