by Dr. Kristen Bovee –
February is the month of love, where we are encouraged to make special time to appreciate our family and friends. Although we are able to do this any time of the year, Valentine’s Day is a good opportunity to reflect on what love really is and how it affects us. The following are the four neurochemicals produced when we feel love and how they positively affect our health.
Oxytocin. The hormone oxytocin is often termed the “cuddle” hormone. It is released in our brains by way of touch and social trust. It is the hormone responsible for male/female orgasm, childbirth (contractions) and lactation in breastfeeding. Giving and receiving hugs, holding hands and nurturing children and adults also triggers oxytocin release but in a smaller amount. It has been found to reduce cortisol levels (stress), relieve anxiety and can reduce the feelings of aches and pains. It helps with reducing blood pressure and can improve fertility. It is important for social interaction/bonding such as with mother and child, which is essential for human survival. It is arguably our most important love hormone.
Dopamine. This is our reward neurotransmitter. It is stimulated by the “chase” aspect of love and is released when our needs are about to be met. It stimulates the euphoric feeling associated with the use of certain drugs and alcohol, which is why it is studied in regards to addiction psychology. Its benefits are that it helps us be alert, aids in memory and help us be creative. Dopamine can aid in our motivation to be more active, as well as stimulate our interest, focus and attention in learning new things. In the case of love, an increase in dopamine can help us learn better and retain memories more effectively. Some studies have shown it to be important for regulating the inflammatory cascade in our bodies and also partially responsible for regulating calcium metabolism in regards to bone density.
Serotonin. This is our body’s natural antidepressant. If our brains don’t have enough, we can suffer low moods and anxiety. In terms of the chemistry of love, serotonin plays a role more in our long-term relationships. When falling in love, our dopamine levels rise and our serotonin level actually drops. However, as time goes on and our relationship grows, serotonin plays a bigger role in maintaining that relationship. Serotonin is stimulated by the “status aspect of love;” a pride of associating with a person of a certain stature leading to better reproductive success and security. This relates to better survival of our offspring, which is a primitive drive in us all.
Endorphins. These are the body’s natural painkillers. With regards to love, endorphins also play an important role in long-term relationships. They are released during physical activity and exercise, and they produce a general sense of well-being, including feeling soothed, peaceful and secure. Endorphins are linked to treating mild depression, support positive feelings about your body (self esteem), reduce stress and can improve sleep.
Feeling and being in love is essential to our human survival. The cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters our body produces is a complex system that explains why love is a powerful “drug.” It has the ability to help us in our immunological, physical, mental and emotional health.