The Chemistry of Love

Falling in love is a wonderful and often overwhelming feeling. Unlike the feelings of love and attachment, which tend to be more stable and long fasting, first attraction is one of the most intense experiences of being human. It is the inspiration for countless works of art and the force behind some of the most courageous and sometimes confusing behaviors.

Most people think of love as something abstract. As an idea that only exists in the mind, spirit, and heart, but love has a physical side as well. There are many chemical processes that go on inside the human body during the different phases of love.

If we roughly divide these phases into attraction, lust, and attachment (love) we will see that different hormones are largely responsible for our thoughts and actions during these phases. 

The Hormones of Love

The need to reproduce is so strong in most animals and humans that it can be compared to other enate characteristics such as the will to survive. Love is very much connected with this need and while most will agree that love is the power that makes the world go round, lust is also important for keeping the population going. 

The different hormones that play important roles in each of these phases of love are listed below:

·       Attraction – Dopamine, Norepinephrine, and Serotonin

·       Lust – Testosterone (men) and Estrogen (women)

·       Attachment – Oxytocin, and Vasopressin

Attraction

Attraction, which often goes hand in hand with lust, is the first phase of love. Being attracted to someone can be described as an intense and often obsessive feeling. You think about that person a lot, crave to see them, and fantasize about all the things you could do together.

This phase is also associated with the famous symptoms, such as:

·       Increased heart rate

·       “Butterflies” in the stomach

·       Sweaty palms

·       Loss of appetite

·       Sleeping problems

The three hormones responsible for such symptoms are dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.

Dopamine

Dopamine is a hormone released in the hypothalamus region of the brain and takes part in several important processes inside your body. In the brain, it also acts as a neurotransmitter, meaning that it is used as a tool of communication between the nerves cells.

Scientists know that dopamine levels in the brain rise when a reward is anticipated. Similar changes of dopamine levels are present after the consumption of certain addictive drugs. For this reason, dopamine is often wrongly recognized as a pleasure hormone.

It would be more accurate to say that dopamine release is stimulated by the expectancy of potential pleasure and not by the pleasure itself.

When it comes to attraction, dopamine levels will rise when you see a person you like. This happens because of a strong desire to be rewarded by closer spiritual and physical contact with that person.

In a way, your brain uses dopamine to send a message that you should continue doing whatever it is that makes you feel good and rewarded. The more dopamine your brain produces, the more your desire for reward increases. Attraction and sex are just two good examples of the connection between dopamine levels and pleasure.   

Dopamine and norepinephrine are largely responsible for the attraction symptoms, such as increased heart rate, decreased appetite, euphoria, and insomnia. These hormones make the person you are attracted to, look more exciting and special to you. The increased desire to talk to others about your loved one is also attributed to dopamine.

Norepinephrine

Norepinephrine or noradrenaline, as it is also called, is another chemical that functions as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter in the human body and brain. 

Norepinephrine  plays a vital role in the body’s reaction to stress. It mobilizes the body and brain for action as a part of a fight-or-flight response. In stressful situations, the levels of norepinephrine rise significantly.

Higher levels of this hormone make you more awake, alert, vigilant and focused. They also contribute to anxiety. All of these reactions were extremely important in life-threatening situations during human evolution.

In response to danger, norepinephrine also causes the following changes inside the body:

·       Speeds up the heart rate

·       Increases blood pressure

·       Releases glucose into the bloodstream

·       Improves blood flow into the muscles

·       Inhibits gastrointestinal motility

Most of these reactions are similar to those we experience when we see a person we find attractive. It is not wrong to say that such meetings are can be a bit stressful as it can be hard to control emotions or even say the right things.

This happens because norepinephrine affects large areas of the brain, resuling in feeling of joy and anxiety, while also suppressing the appetite. Together with dopamine, norepinephrine is responsible for symptoms of attraction such as increased heartbeat and sweaty palms. 

Serotonin

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter often associated with the feeling of happiness. This is not untrue, but is an oversimplified statement as serotonin has many important and complex roles inside the body.

Serotonin is important for various physiological processes, including memory, cognition, reward, and learning. However, when it comes to early stages of attraction it is not the high levels of this neurotransmitter that are responsible for the “symptoms,” but actually lower levels due to higher cortisol.

The thing is, having a crush on someone is in a way a stressful experience. Your brain reacts to stress by increasing the levels of another hormone called cortisol. When cortisol levels are high, serotonin levels become low.

These low levels of serotonin cause symptoms similar to those of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). That is why we often experience preoccupying thoughts about the person we are attracted to, obsessive thinking, fear of rejection, high hopes, etc.

Scientifically speaking, it seems that early infatuation is just a symptom of low serotonin.

Because of its effect on mood, serotonin became a target of many antidepressants, such as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s). These medications are used to treat anxiety and depression by increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain. As people transition into the attachment phase of love the cortisol will go down and serotonin will go back up, which produces a more pleasant experience.

Lust

The main characteristic of lust is a strong physical desire to engage in sexual contact with the person you are attracted too. This basic human drive has a straightforward connection with the need to reproduce.

Testosterone is a male hormone associated with sexual cravings. High levels of these hormones in men increase their sexual desire, but they do not make men fall in love. Estrogen, the female sex hormone, has a similar effect on women.

Testosterone

Testosterone is responsible for the development of male reproductive tissues and all the distinctive physical characteristics of the male gender. These include:

·       Growth of bodily hair

·       Increased bone and muscle mass

·       Bone development

Low testosterone levels can cause health problems in men. Osteoporosis, low sex drive, and decreased physical performance are among these problems. That is why testosterone is sometimes used as a medication, especially in elderly men.

Testosterone has a very important role in lust. It is probably the most important factor for sexual motivation in males. Studies show that men whose testosterone levels are low or suppressed with medications have a significantly lower sexual desire.

Research performed on primates shows that male testosterone levels increase when they are exposed to the scent of ovulating females. When we add the fact that female sexual desire is higher during ovulation, we can understand how nature has a way of increasing lust between sexes.

Testosterone levels and sexual desire are also higher in individuals who engage in sexual contact with more partners. This is not good news for monogamy, but it is true for both men and women. It also potentially explains why long-term relationships tend to become dull sometimes, and why sexual contact between long-term partners often becomes less frequent.

Estrogen

Estrogen is the primary female sex hormone. It is important for the development of female secondary sex characteristics, such as breast growth, and the regulation of the menstrual cycle.

However, the connection between estrogen levels and sexual desire is not as straightforward like in the case of testosterone (in men). Still, most scientists believe that higher levels of estrogen increase sexual arousal in women.

Potential proof of this is the well-documented decrease of sexual desire after menopause. Since this is the time when estrogen levels are also low or falling, researchers believe that there is a connection between the two. However, these conclusions are based solely on observation and no direct connection has been established yet.

What is sure is that estrogen levels in women are highest during the periovulation period. This is the same time when the chances for pregnancy are best. Could this be nature’s way of telling women to engage in sexual activity so they would reproduce? The probability is high.

It is interesting that ovulating women also show preferences towards male faces with certain characteristics. This could mean that high estrogen levels influence women’s partner selection. If that is the case, the role of estrogen in lust and attraction might be even more significant than we currently think.

Estrogen takes part in many actions that go on inside the female body, some of these actions are:

·       Acceleration of metabolism

·       Fat storage

·       Formation of secondary sex characteristics

·       Bone formation

·       Uterine growth

·       Vaginal lubrication

·       Ovulation

·       Sex drive

Some studies show that testosterone alone does not increase sexual desire in women. However, in combination with estrogen, it promotes sexual receptivity and arousal.

Estrogen is also used as a medication in menopausal hormone therapy and hormonal birth control.

Attachment or True Love

Attachment is the phase of love that lasts longest. It is not associated so much with lust, but is predominantly about friendship, trust, sense of security, and a desire to share your life with someone.

For long-term relationships and marriage, attachment is vital. It is characterized by the desire to make a lasting commitment, start living together, or have children. Attachment is what keeps the relationship strong even when the initial attraction and lust wear off.

That is when other hormones, such as oxytocin and vasopressin take over.

Oxytocin

Just like dopamine, oxytocin is a hormone and a neurotransmitter that is produced in the hypothalamus. This chemical is associated with many social functions such as bonding, social recognition, and the creation of memories.

Oxytocin is important for the attachment phase of love because it influences relationship-building, empathy, trust, and sexual activity. All of this has earned oxytocin its popular name, the hormone of love.

The research shows that the levels of this hormone increase during breastfeeding, hugging, cuddling, and orgasms. All of these actions are strongly associated with attachment and love. Some studies even show that oxytocin is beneficial for the treatment of depression and anxiety.

Women have higher levels of oxytocin than men. This may be because oxytocin plays an important role in female reproductive functions. Scientists have found that the stimulation of nipples increases the release of this hormone.

With this knowledge, it is easier to understand the full importance of breastfeeding. When the baby feeds on breast milk it triggers the release of oxytocin. The increased levels oxytocin increasing bonding with the baby, improves the uterus motility, and speeds up the recovery process after delivery.

Oxytocin is also used as a medication in obstetrics and gynecology. It can help the childbirth process by increasing the contractions of the uterus. However, oxytocin should be used with care because higher doses can cause ruptures and damage the uterus.

Vasopressin

Vasopressin, together with oxytocin, is a hormone with an important part in the attachment phase of love. A study performed on prairie voles concluded that low levels of this hormone influenced these animals to abandon their normally monogamous behavior. When prairie voles were given a medication that suppresses vasopressin, they started to neglect their partners and let other individuals mate with them.

Scientists have recorded significant differences in the distribution of vasopressin receptors and vasopressin in monogamous and promiscuous species of animals. These differences seem to influence their social behavior. However, the influence on social and sexual behavior is not a primary function of vasopressin in the human body.

This chemical is synthesized in the hypothalamus as a prohormone and later gets converted into a hormone called arginine vasopressin (AVP). The two primary functions of vasopressin (AVP) have nothing to do with love or attachment.

Vasopressin (AVP) is an antidiuretic hormone. This is its most important function. It increases the amount of water reabsorbed into the bloodstream after it has been filtrated in the kidneys.

The other function of this hormone is the constriction of arterioles, small blood vessels that branch out from arteries into the capillaries. When these blood vessels are constricted, arterial blood pressure rises. Because of this, vasopressin has a role in blood pressure and body temperature regulation.

Hypothalamic neurons release some vasopressin directly into the brain. This vasopressin is believed to be involved in aggression and to potentially have an analgesic effect.

Vasopressin (AVP) also has medical uses. As a medication, vasopressin is used in the treatment of:

·       Antidiuretic hormone deficiency

·       Gastrointestinal bleeding

·       Ventricular tachycardia

·       Bedwetting in children

·       Bleeding control

·       Septic shock

The possible connections between vasopressin (AVP) levels and autism are still a matter of scientific research.

The Downside of Love

What we have described here are the more positive roles of hormones in love. They make you feel enthusiastic, rewarded, happy and connected with your partner.

 However, we all know that love is often much more complicated. Not all feelings associated with love are positive. What about jealousy, anxiety, depression, and irrational behavior?  These are all common emotions when you are happily or unhappily in love.

So, what causes them? Are hormones only responsible for feeling good? The answer is no. Same hormones are responsible for the downsides of love

An Example

Let’s take dopamine, the release of this hormone is stimulated by a promise of reward. But, are only good things rewarding? Of course not.

Your brain can be stimulated with bad things too like drugs. It is scientifically proven that cocaine stimulates dopamine levels to rise. Most addictions do the same.

Whether is binge eating, shopping, or gambling, if it is rewarding dopamine will rise. High dopamine levels will make you want more of whatever you found rewarding in the first place. This is how dopamine can push you down a never-ending spiral of addiction.

One addiction often attracts another one.  It also attracts depression, anxiety, as well as other mental and physical disorders.

In most cases, if you are attracted to another person, you are addicted to their presence, attention, etc. Emotional dependence is a type of addiction, even the cravings are quite real.

Love Can Make You Dumb

Irrational behavior is often a part of being in love. Embarrassment and regrets are common too. All these things are consequences of hormonal level changes. Sexual arousal is responsible for the majority of hastily-made, not-so-smart decisions. Studies show that sexual arousal shuts off the regions of the brain in charge of rational behavior, critical thinking, and self-awareness.

A Word of Advice

Although all the chemicals are known, there is no single formula for love that works the same for everyone. Love is an evolving process. It starts energetically, like a river, but later it flows slowly, becoming calm and wide but more powerful.

Still, knowing the role of hormones in love and lust can be very useful in recognizing our own behaviors. There are also things that you can do to maintain higher levels of love hormones and enjoy all the benefits.

  1. Recognize lust is not love

Many studies prove that chemical processes that go on inside our bodies and our behavior are not the same during the lusting phase and the attachment phase of love. Lust is important for love, but it is not everything.

2.   Do not let the romance die

You can do this by stimulating dopamine release. The levels of this hormone are kept low when you lead a boring, predictable, and unsatisfactory life. Date nights with your long-term partner, dancing, watching movies, and doing new and exciting things are all great ways to stimulate dopamine.

3.   Intimacy is important

Remain close and intimate with your partner even when the lust and attraction fade away. Hugs, kisses, sex, and deep, meaningful conversations will keep the Oxycontin levels high later in the relationship.

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