Why Love is a Very Powerful Drug ?:The Chemistry of Love
Love is one of the most extraordinary sensations that human beings can enjoy. But have your soul ever been broken? Has your heart been broken to pieces?
The love drug: why is love addictive?
The chemistry of love is capable of making you feel like you are in full swing, making you go down, or making you feel like a monkey for someone. That love is like a drug is true, and it has some curious side effects.
As a study by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine points out, when love is broken, as when a person is addicted to drugs, the consequences of addiction are so strong that they can lead to serious depressive and obsessive behaviors. As we have seen in a recent article, love can cause emotional dependency. In the following lines, you will know why.
The chemical compounds and hormones that love generates
Love releases dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, so when we fall in love we feel excited, full of energy and our perception of life is magnificent. But the neurochemicals of infatuation come in spurts and over time, just as happens when someone uses drugs over a long period, tolerance or what is commonly known as habituation.
When the chemical cascade descends, many people interpret it as a loss of love (MacDonald & MacDonald, 2010). What really happens is that the neural receptors have already become accustomed to that excess chemical flow and the lover needs to increase the dose to continue feeling the same. That can turn a natural fluctuation into a crisis, and the beautiful phrase can come: “I don’t feel the same anymore.” But leaving a relationship is not always that simple.
The brain needs a recovery process to return to normal levels of chemical flow and it takes time to regain stability.
Oxytocin: a hug is worth a thousand words
The chemical cascade can make us lose our minds, but why does this happen?
Expert neurologists like Gareth Leng believe that oxytocin helps forge permanent bonds between lovers after the first wave of emotion. The hormone works by “changing the connections” of the billions of neural circuits. This hormone is known as the cuddle or trust neurotransmitter and is released in large amounts during orgasm and in smaller amounts when they hold your hand or when animals lick their babies.
Oxytocin is an endogenous substance (secreted by the body) and acts as a drug (an exogenous substance introduced into the body from outside), releasing transmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine (norepyrephrine), or serotonin. These neurotransmitters allow the brain to be flooded with phenylethylamine. This chemical compound is from the amphetamine family and has a duration in the brain of about 4 years according to the theory of Donald F. Klein and Michael Lebowitz that emerged in the ’80s. Chocolate is rich in this compound, for that is common during “lovesickness” excessive amounts are consumed.
Reptiles release oxytocin during sex, but mammals produce it all the time. That is why reptiles stay away from other reptiles except when mating, while mammals form attachments with relatives, litters, or herds. The more oxytocin that is released, the more attached you feel to the other person. But we must bear in mind that the levels of neurotransmitter or hormone secretion also depend on our beliefs and our perception of things. The ideas, prejudices, values, experiences, expectations, or fantasies that we have, can cause us to release more or fewer chemicals. This process follows a fixed pattern: more contact, more oxytocin, more confidence (more strengthening of neural connections). Expectations or imagination also act as a form of contact and follow that pattern.
But we do not realize that obviously, lovers do not always meet the expectations they have of each other, whether they are realistic or not. That can lead to a state of frustration. In addition, contact with an ex-partner can revive that pattern or connection between neurons, and that is why most psychologists who are love experts recommend an all-or-nothing therapy to overcome a breakup. As you stop maintaining contact with your loved one, your connections weaken, and as time goes by, relapses are less and less frequent.
Oxytocin also plays an important factor in jealousy. For the mammalian brain, any loss of confidence is a life-threatening emergency. When a sheep is separated from its flock, oxytocin levels drop and cortisol levels rise. Cortisol is the sensation that we experience as fear, panic, or anxiety. It works for sheep by motivating them to reconnect with their flock before they eat it alive. In humans, cortisol converts frustrated expectations or lack of confidence in emergencies.
Serotonin: the neurotransmitter of happiness
Getting respect feels good as it stimulates the release of serotonin (Cozolino, 2006). In the animal world, social dominance brings with it more mating opportunities and more offspring. Animals don’t dominate for long-term conscious goals, they dominate because serotonin makes them feel good.
You will see this in many people, and in yourself, you must admit that romantic attention from a higher-status person triggers strong feelings and makes you feel good. The problem arises because your brain always wants more respect to get more serotonin. Your partner can give you that feeling at first and can give you the respect you need or help you feel respected by others… But your brain takes the respect you already have for granted, and as time goes on, it wants more and more to get a bigger dose of good feelings. That is why some people always make more demands on their loved ones, and others, constantly seek partners or lovers of higher status. Self-esteem plays an important role in this regard and in order not to fall into error, it helps to better understand the origins of our neurochemical impulses.
Serotonin acts on emotions and mood. It is responsible for well-being, generates optimism, good humor, and sociability, and is known to play an important role in inhibiting anger and aggression. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression and obsession (symptoms of heartbreak). Antidepressant drugs are responsible for increasing serotonin levels to correct the neurochemical deficit, and that is why Prozac (the most famous antidepressant on the planet) is called the drug of happiness.
Constant positive experiences and positive thoughts also increase serotonin levels. On the other hand, unpleasant thoughts, bad news, talking about sad and worrying things, or getting angry, completely inhibit the activation of serotonin.
Dopamine: addicted to love
Dopamine is related to pleasure, and it is the neurotransmitter that plays an important role in gambling, drug use, and love as well. When we fall in love, dopamine is released, making couples feel euphoric and energetic. “If someone is unique in their life and focuses on that person, it is because the dopamine system has been activated”, says Helen Fisher (2004), a biological anthropologist.
Dopamine is important as it is involved in the reward system. Pleasure makes us feel good, have sex, eat food, and do things that allow us to survive. But in both drugs and love, when the external stimulus (drug) or internal (oxytocin) disappears, it can create serious problems for a person. Then the monkey and the obsession appear.
Noradrenaline: the dose of adrenaline
Norepinephrine or norepyrephrine is the neurotransmitter that induces euphoria in the brain, exciting the body and giving it a dose of natural adrenaline. This causes the heart to beat faster, blood pressure to rise, and it causes us to breathe more heavily so that more oxygen reaches the blood. It causes the symptom of sweaty palms and blushes of the early stages of infatuation.
The love drug versus reason
Animals are surprisingly picky about who they hang out with. Free love is not a natural thing. In each species, sex has something preliminary. Animals only have sexual intercourse when the female is actively fertile, except for bonobos (which do so for food and to resolve conflicts). Female chimps only have sex every five years. The rest of the time they are pregnant or lactating, and without ovulation, the males are not interested. When opportunity calls, it is an important event. Natural selection produced a brain in humans that evolved to maximize reproduction, and the neurochemicals of happiness evolved to promote reproductive behaviors. That doesn’t make much sense in a world with birth control and sustainability pressures. But in nature, you had to focus on reproducing many babies. Therefore, natural selection has created a brain with happy chemicals to reward reproductive behavior.
Love promotes reproduction, which causes a large number of chemicals that produce happiness. Sex is only one aspect of reproductive behavior. Love motivates you to travel the world to be alone with that special person. Of course, the reason is above those biological trivialities but the neurochemicals of happiness make it feel so good to be in love that the brain searches for a way to achieve more. Neurochemists do their job without words, and we search for words to explain the insanity of our motivations. Sometimes it is simpler to deceive or manipulate than to try to understand it.
In short, we want to be happy and have the maximum neurochemicals of happiness. We expect that from love and other aspects of life. But no matter how many neurochemicals we get, in the long run, the brain gets used to falling in love like when there is tolerance to the drug. Knowing why this happens can help you manage your behavior despite confusing neurochemical signals.
There is good news. Don’t blame yourself if you are not the same as the first day with your partner. You have to know how to distinguish love from falling in love. Love has to do with beliefs and values, and falling in love is a series of chemical reactions produced in different brain regions that make us have an idyllic perception of a person. Even so, it is not a bad thing, it has simply had to live with the operating system that has kept human beings alive for millions of years.
- Fisher, H. (2004). Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. New York: Henry Holt.
- Izard, CE (1991). The psychology of emotions. New York: Plenum Press.
- Pigeon, RE (1982). Link theory. Buenos Aires: New Vision.