The Power of Love
Anyone who has been in a romantic relationship or has raised a child can attest to love’s ability to affect us.
Although love songs and romantic comedies tend to refer to love as “matters of the heart,” it’s the brain that holds love’s mysteries. Specifically, it’s the chemicals the brain produces that are responsible for the power love has over our minds and bodies.
One such chemical – oxytocin – has been the subject of many research studies.
It has been linked to decreasing pain and increasing emotional attachment. Currently, researchers have focused on using it to treat a variety of mental illnesses from schizophrenia to post traumatic stress disorder.
“Hugging and handholding, for example, are noted to calm the nervous system, to increase oxytocin, the love hormone, and reduce cortisol, the culprit stress hormone that negatively affects immune function,” explains Dr. Tiffany Field who heads the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Health System.
“Oxytocin was first discovered in prairie voles,” says Dr. Field. “Mothers who nurtured their babies more had higher oxytocin levels.” It is released when you give birth, cuddle, have an orgasm and breastfeed. It fosters bonding and it also decreases pain, which may be why even after the painful act of giving birth women decide to have more children.
Oxytocin isn’t the only love chemical, though.
There are several others, each with its own special power.
Testosterone plays a huge role in sexual desire in both women and men. A 2004 study – Hormonal Changes When Falling in Love – found that lust causes testosterone to fall in men and to increase in women. For this reason, women tend to be more aggressive when they are sexually aroused.
The feeling of first falling in love is well documented in movies, poetry and songs. It’s almost like obsession. In fact, studies have found that people who are newly in love spend up to 85 percent of their time thinking of their sweetheart. This may be caused by the decrease in serotonin in the brain that occurs when you are passionately in love.
An increase in dopamine also occurs in the brain when you first fall in love. This is also seen in people with bipolar disorder who are experiencing mania. Symptoms include:
- Lack of appetite
- Heart palpitations
- Increase in stomach acid
- Illogical risk-taking
Sounds awful, right? Maybe not. Other, happier symptoms include:
- Increased feeling of unity
According to a study published in 2012, “one key distinction between romantic love in its early and later stages is greater calm associated with the latter.” That’s due to the mix of chemicals in your brain has slowly changed. Serotonin levels increase so you no longer spend all your time obsessing over your partner. Your levels of oxytocin and vasopressin have also increased making you feel more calm and at ease.
Breaking up is hard to do
All of these chemicals also play a role when your heart is broken. That’s why it seems like the negative effects of breaking up and the positive effects of falling in love are two sides of the same coin.
In an article published in 2017 in the International Journal of Behavioral Research & Psychology, Dr. Field explains that decreased serotonin levels cause people to obsess over the person who has broken their heart as they did when they first fell in love with them.
“Other characteristics of heartbreak and romantic love have also been correlated with elevated dopamine including increased energy, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, a pounding heart, accelerated breathing and anxiety,” she writes.
Natasha Bright is a contributing writer for the UMiami Health News blog. Her writing has also been featured on the Huffington Post and Scary Mommy websites.