Studying the chemistry behind romantic relationships can seem to take the fun out of things – but it does give researchers a better idea of what causes the powerful emotions that poets have written about for years. It turns out there are several chemicals in the brain and bloodstream that play key roles in either the lust, attraction or emotional attachment phases of a love relationship. In the initial lust phase, these three substances can combine to create a highly addictive scenario:

    • Romantic thoughts about the object of lust can cause neurotransmitters in the brain to release the hormone adrenaline, one of the stress hormones, from the adrenal gland directly into the bloodstream. It increases the heart rate (hence the phrase “be still my heart”) and sometimes, causes sweaty palms, even trembling. These physical reactions can be strong physical evidence of high lustful interest. Being alert and attentive are signs of high adrenaline levels. We also associate all of these signs with excitement.
    • Serotonin is a universal regulator. It impacts body temperature, mood, appetite and pain. Levels of serotonin are low at the outset of an exciting new attraction, and that’s why a new romantic interest can seem to take over thought processes, the “can’t get him outa my mind” It can also take away pain and feelings of hunger.
    • Dopamine can produce the feeling of being almost “high on love.” It works within the brain’s pleasure centers and impacts how we respond to situations emotionally. Increased feelings of pleasure and motivation are associated with high levels of dopamine; lower levels indicate sadness.

Over time, those powerful feelings give way to a bonded attachment between lovers, and that’s when the next two hormones are ever present:

    • Oxytocin has a lot to do with attachment and has become known as the “love hormone.” Blood levels of oxytocin are elevated during physical expressions of love, including sex and orgasm…and even during breastfeeding. It plays an important part in feelings of attachment and connection, and is associated with feelings of trust and comfort whether between two lovers or between a mother and her baby.
    • Vasopressin is a similar substance in that it encourages bonding and attraction between long-time partners. It also plays a role in sexual arousal. Scientists are also studying whether low levels of vasopressin may have something to do with infidelity in males.

Understanding these substances and the roles they play in romantic relationships and sexual function enable a skilled provider to help patients should adjustments need to be made. It may seem unnatural to look at love through such a clinical lens, but it does help get to the heart of what may not be working in matters of the heart. If love truly does make the world go ‘round, sometimes a little nudge to get it spinning in the right direction is all that may be needed.


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