The biochemistry of love

Have you ever heard of the expression “I think I’m in love” or “I love you”? You probably might have indulged these words yourself right? This expression is used on the regular basis mostly by the youth though some of the older generations do patronize it too. Have you ever taken time off your busy schedule to wonder the meaning of the word “LOVE” and what really goes into it? How it comes to play in the human life and how it works? Can it be explained biologically or it’s just a feeling?

Some people actually believe love is an expression or feeling which cannot be explained and we just have to accept it when we experience it. Today I want to delve into the biochemical perspective of love. Love can be described as a strong or constant feeling of affection for a person (e.g. love between a couple), or a deep interest and pleasure in something (e.g. love for fashion or soccer).

From the biochemical view the equation of love can be said to be like this:

Testosterone + estrogen + dopamine + noradrenaline + oxytocin + vasopressin = love [1].

From the above equation we can say that the process of falling in love involves some hormones and neurotransmitters which can be concluded as an action of the brain since they are all linked to the brain one way or the other.

Testosterone is the steroid hormone which, in mammals, is primarily found in the testes of males and the ovaries of females. This hormone is vital to health and wellbeing as well as in sexual functioning. Females are more sensitive to testosterone, but males produce forty to sixty times more of this hormone. Estrogen is a steroid hormone which functions as the primary female sex hormone. This can be found in both males and females, but most predominantly in women. Estrogen is responsible for promoting the formation of female secondary sex characteristics, slowing down height growth and many others [2]. These two hormones are the basic sexual hormones in humans and are the first to come to play in the process of love [1]. This is what causes an individual to lust after someone which is the first stage. The next time you feel a pull toward someone for the first time, know its estrogen or testosterone at work.

When lusting after someone we experience different feelings and changes in attitude or mood. These may include a strong feeling to be with the person, constantly thinking about the person, skipping a heartbeat, sweating profusely, flushing/blushing of the skin, loss of appetite, sleepless nights and spending hours daydreaming about the person. We also experience intense excitement when the person expresses interest in us and feel down when there is lack of interest. The lusting stage is known as the attraction stage and the brain chemicals that come to play are dopamine and noradrenalin (also known as norepinephrine) [1]. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (a chemical signal) that transmits information between brain cells called neurons [3]. Dopamine is known as the “pleasure chemical” producing the feeling of bliss and it’s the same chemical involved in the abuse of drug. This chemical stimulates ‘desire and reward’ by triggering an intense rush of pleasure. It has the same effect on the brain as taking cocaine! [4]. Noradrenaline functions as a hormone and neurotransmitter, it is the brain chemical that causes the heart to beat fast or the palms to sweat when one sees his or her object of affection. Like dopamine, norepinephrine makes the body feel good but it also makes us feel infatuated and obsessed. It’s our brain’s way of saying: keep going [5].

Various investigations have been carried out to determine the action of dopamine and noradrenaline in the process of love. A popular study in this area is the brain scan investigation by Dr. Helen Fisher, an American anthropologist and human behavior researcher. In her study, she found out that when one is madly in love, the parts of the brain which is in charge of producing the two chemicals, dopamine and noradrenaline, are activated. This experiment among others suggested that dopamine and adrenaline are involved in the process of love and they may be responsible for attraction between lovers [6]. From the research it can be said that dopamine and noradrenaline produce the “high” feeling one experiences when one is emotionally or romantically involved with someone. Finding love is part of the human make up and thus it can be said that our brain actually compels us to find someone you can experience such feelings with. So the next time you are worried and wondering why you feel so attracted to someone, hey! Don’t deny it. This is actually part of the brains work [1]. This stage is not permanent otherwise we would all be sexually exhausted. Just as the chemicals dopamine and noradrenaline come in a rush, they can dwindle causing the feeling of passionate love to lose their strength. Mostly that is the stage where you see lovers fight and seem to have problems with each other [1].

If the relationship can advance, then other chemicals kick in and the relationship goes over into stage 3, passionate love fades and attachment grows. In romantic love, when two people hug, touch and have sex, Oxytocin also known as the “cuddle chemical” is released, which begins creating an emotional bond, the more hugging and sex, the greater the bond. Oxytocin evokes feelings of contentment, reductions in anxiety and feelings of calmness and security around our partner, gradually leading to attachment a bond that keeps couples together, and giving them the desire to stay faithful and protect each other [7] .This is the same chemical produced when a mother is giving birth or when a baby suckles his mother’s breast [8]. It produces a strong bond of affection and it’s what keeps the relationship going as they stay together.

Vasopressin is made in the brain, by both men and women. However, the male hormone testosterone enhances the effect of vasopressin, so men experience stronger effects. Vasopressin strengthens the bond between lovers. This is what makes a man more responsible and makes him feel the need to protect his loved ones. This chemical is capable of causing a man to stick with one woman thus the name the “monogamy chemical” [9]. And mind you, I am not saying a polygamous person lacks this chemical.

The next time you feel a surge of attraction towards someone, feel like you are in love or you look at your object of affection and you wonder what is causing all those mushy feelings? Just know your brain is at work in conjunction with all these chemicals. And trust me love is a beautiful thing.



By: Godslove A. Boadu, BSc Biochemistry student at KNUST

©2016 Scientect e-mag | Volume 1 (1): A9

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