Your Brain in Love


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Falling in love can be a wonderful experience that fills us with feelings of “butterflies” in our stomachs, adrenaline rushes, and euphoria. It may come as a surprise, but love is actually more closely related to the brain than the heart, and it remains one of the most studied yet least understood behaviors in science. There are many reasons why love can lead to better health and vitality, and most of these reasons are largely due to the hormones involved. Understanding the benefits of love can help us appreciate the positive impact that it can have on our health and well-being.

The Limbic System

So, what happens when we are in love? On a biochemical level, there are several different hormones that influence our emotions. These hormones are produced from endocrine glands that closely interact with several structures in the brain, such as the hypothalamus, hippocampus, and thalamus, to name a few. Together, these structures make up what is known as the limbic system – this is where memories are stored and where feelings of attraction and affection are processed. This system plays a major role in the experience of being in love and falling in love. According to neuropsychologist Cynthia Kubu, it is what can drive our desire to initiate a conversation with someone who we find attractive or reduce our fears of opening up to a new partner. For these reasons, understanding the hormones that influence the limbic system can help us better understand the health benefits of romantic love.

Oxytocin & Vasopressin

Oxytocin is commonly known as the “love hormone” because it helps us form social connections, enhances trust, and deepens feelings of attraction. It is released in conversation, touch, playtime, and other meaningful interactions between two individuals. Theresa Larkin, an associate professor in medical sciences for the Graduate School of Medicine at University of Wollongong in Australia, explains that oxytocin elevates our feelings of bonding, attachment, and commitment to someone. In addition to its role in love, oxytocin has been shown to help reduce stress, blood pressure, and promote growth and healing. Recent research indicates that oxytocin may even regulate some probiotic bacteria found in breastmilk.

Similar to oxytocin, vasopressin also triggers strong emotions associated with love. However, it is also released when there is a potential threat, making us more protective of the people we care about. For this reason, it can create feelings of possession or jealousy, which can be moderated by the release of oxytocin. Therefore, oxytocin and vasopressin have a complex relationship that can help explain the changes in behavior in a long-term relationship, such as the loss of passionate love and growth of attachment over time.

Dopamine, Testosterone & Estrogen

Dopamine is one of the most researched pleasure hormones. In relationships, dopamine is released during kissing and activates the reward pathways that cause the feeling of a love “high.” This response is so strong that it has even been compared to the euphoria that comes with using a drug as powerful as cocaine. Aside from its function in romantic experiences, dopamine is responsible for other important bodily functions such as renal activity, intestinal motility, and blood pressure.

Testosterone and estrogen, often referred to as our “sex hormones,” play a significant role in the desire to reproduce and are often associated with feelings of infatuation and lust. It can be said that these hormones encourage sexual activity, while dopamine rewards the action.

Noradrenaline & Serotonin

Noradrenaline is the hormone involved in physiological responses like a racing heart, increased energy, or sweaty palms when meeting someone new or falling in love. It is also linked to memory storage, which explains why it may be easier to recall first dates or first kisses.

Serotonin plays a role in several different bodily functions such as mood, sleep, and digestion. Research is showing that serotonin also plays an important role in gut-brain interactions. During the initial stages of falling in love, cortisol levels are high, which depletes serotonin. However, as the relationship begins to feel secure and safe over time, cortisol and serotonin levels return to normal. Interestingly, Sandra Langeslag, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, reported that serotonin levels of individuals who are in love mimic the levels of those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This is due to the release of both dopamine and serotonin at the same time, both of which contribute to obsessive thoughts. Therefore, love hormones are not always triggered in isolation and may be produced at the same time, making love a complex physiological experience.

In summary, the complex human emotion of Love is orchestrated by the interaction of multiple chemical messengers in our body affecting specialized networks in the brain. In addition, the release of these love-related hormones can have a positive impact on our mental and physical health. Not only can love generate feelings of joy, but it can also contribute to reduced stress, better sleep, improved immune health, less pain, reduced depression, better problem-solving skills, enhanced cognitive function, and even longer life. Triggering the hormones associated with love can still be achieved without a romantic partner. For example, spending quality time with family members, close friends, enjoying nature, and even interacting with your pets at home can promote similar health benefits associated with love hormones.

Monica Echeverri holds a Master of Science in Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine from the University of Western States and currently works as a food photographer, writer, and recipe developer.

This article was reviewed and approved by Emeran Mayer, MD