LOVE DRUG From an ‘electric buzz’ to butterflies & a racing heart

The Sun Magazine: LOVE DRUG From an ‘electric buzz’ to butterflies and a racing heart – what happens to your body when you fall in love

Plus how a break-up can affect your body – as well as the science behind the ‘ick’
Eliza Loukou
Published: 13:51, 14 Feb 2024 Sun Magazine

THERE’S nothing quite like falling in love. From the surge of joy at the thought your loved one, to the sweaty anxiety of getting ready to see them and the despair of not hearing from them, it can certainly be an emotional roller-coaster.

Falling in love can involve a heady cocktail of hormones surging through your body head over heals for someone is unique each time and it can feel like an intensely individual experience.

But there are some core biological processes that underpin being smitten with a special someone. And they might explain some of the wacky expressions we have to describe the experience of craving our beloved: from ‘butterflies in your stomach’ to ‘love is blind’. Dr Liat Yakir, a biologist specialising in hormones and genes dove deep into the biological underpinnings of love and the science of attraction in her book A Brief History of Love.

Speaking to Sun Health, she revealed how our brain rates someone as attractive or unattractive in the seconds after laying eyes on them.

“Within the first 30 seconds of meeting someone, the amygdala forms an initial impression of attraction – an instinctual and often subconscious emotional judgement made by the primitive brain,” she explained. “This decision categorises a person as “attractive,” “unattractive,” “acceptable,” or “unacceptable.”

During the initial stages of love, the brain is flooded with the most potent chemicals it can experience Dr Liat Yakir

The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure that lies in the temporal lobe of your brain – it’s responsible for managing emotions, decision-making, sexual arousal, and fear and aggression and plays a crucial role in the process of attraction, the biologist said.

“It primarily focuses on elimination, discarding negative options based on past emotional experiences and evolutionary instincts.

“This small yet pivotal brain part emphasises negative aspects threefold over positive ones, adhering to a “better safe than sorry” philosophy.”

Dr Philippa Kaye answers the web’s most EMBARRASSING women’s sex questions

Sex hormones play a role too in selecting a potential partner, Dr Yakir went on. “We also seek indicators of oxytocin, the love hormone, observable in a person’s eyes and facial expressions – their smile, laughter, empathetic and sociable gaze. “Indeed, the eyes serve as a portal to the emotional brain, housing 70 per cent of our sensory receptors.

“Remarkably, in just 15 milliseconds, our brain can discern another’s emotional state through their eyes.” What happens to your body when you fall in love? Whether it happens gradually or all at once, falling in love in involves a number of different biological processes, lighting up parts of your brain and prompting a surge in hormones. Theresa Larkin, associate professor of medical sciences at the University of Wollongong, told Sun Health the main areas of the brain activated are in the limbic system. “The limbic system is made up of different structures that are connected in almost a C-shape deep in the brain,” she explained.

They “have roles in emotion, behaviour and memory,” Dr Larkin went on. This can explain why your memories of new love are so strong.

This moment can feel like an electric buzz running down the spine to the lower back Dr Liat Yakir

A heady cocktail of hormones will also begin coursing through your body as fall for someone. Dr Yakir said: “During the initial stages of love, the brain is flooded with the most potent chemicals it can experience: dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin released through touch, caresses, kisses, gentle massages, and, notably, during sexual activity. “The magic often starts with a kiss, when oxytocin is released into the bloodstream, stimulating the vagus nerve.”

The vagus nerve is part of your parasympathetic nervous system and controls specific body functions such as your digestion, heart rate and immune system. “This moment can feel like an electric buzz running down the spine to the lower back, awakening the genitals. “This sensation is the work of oxytocin, the hormone behind desire and orgasms, influencing sexual behaviour.” Oxytocin and vasopressin are often referred to as love drugs, as they help enhance the bond between people the more they are produced.

Cuddling, touching and orgasming can all do the trick. According to Dr Larkin, oxytocin – our feel good hormone of social bonding – also has a more important role after the initial infatuation stage of love. “It is the hormone of attachment, commitment and the positive health benefits of feeling connected to someone [and] has these roles in non-romantic love also,” she explained. Dopamine and adrenaline also play a role in falling in love and experiencing attraction, Dr Larkin added. “Dopamine stimulates the reward and motivation pathways. “These are those feelings of desire, motivation for the chase of a lover, and then positive feelings of reward when you connect with them or see them.”

Adrenaline, meanwhile, is released with the anticipation and stress of new love.
In love’s euphoria, oxytocin paints our partner in perfect hues, masking any flaws Dr Liat Yakir

“It gives us the butterflies in the stomach feeling and racing heart,” Dr Larkin explained. There might also be a reason your orgasms are particularly earth-shattering when sleeping with someone you’re head over heals for. Dr Yakir said: “At a relationship’s start, orgasms are incredibly intense as the brain and nervous system react to exhilarating stimuli from a new partner, revelling in a flood of pleasurable love drugs.”

And while a ‘better safe than sorry’ instinct might take hold when you first meet someone, the opposite can happen when we’re deep in the throes of love. “In love’s euphoria, oxytocin paints our partner in perfect hues, masking any flaws,” Dr Yakir stated. “But as the hormonal surge wanes and reality sets in, previously overlooked negative traits become apparent, prompting the question of why these weren’t evident sooner.” There’s a reason we say ‘love is blind’ after all. Is being in love good for your health? Being in love can feel pretty intoxicating, and turns out it can benefit your health too.

Speaking to ABC News Australia, Dr Larkin said the love hormone oxytocin has anti-inflammatory effects and help dampen stress and improve cardiovascular function. The release of oxytocin stimulates the hormone atrial natriuretic peptide, which regulates blood pressure and can prevent thickening of heart muscle. Studies also link romantic love to increased physical activity, reduced depression and better sleep for some people. Others, however might actually end up feeling more irritable or anxious instead.

And sometimes, the all-consuming nature of our emotions can make us forget about exercise, our jobs and friendships. What happens when you fall out of love? Hormones once again come into play when our feelings dim or we fall out of love. “Oxytocin binds us, transforming strangers into lovers,” Dr Yakir explained. “After the initial infatuation phase, which can last from six hours to two years, relationships either experience a decline in excitement and couples grow apart or develop into a stable bond of friendship and trust.

“Continuous oxytocin production is essential to maintain this bond beyond the initial butterflies’ phase. “Without it, the connection dissolves, reverting partners to strangers.” Dr Larkin added: “The main biological processes of falling out of love are due to less interest, motivation and connection around the lover. “There is no longer the dopamine hit from being with them, and oxytocin is not stimulated as much if there is less emotional and physical connection.”

And hormones strike again in the case of a breakup. “When someone goes through a break up that is stressful, the main impact is that there is an increase in the stress hormone cortisol,” Dr Larkin said. “This may be short-lived but can also continue in a chronic stress situation.  “It is important to reduce this by connecting with others and finding motivation for other activities, to still stimulate dopamine and oxytocin.” Breakups are often likened to a punch in the gut and it turns out that’s not just a metaphor.

Whether or not it was mutual, the emotional pain of a breakup can often be so intense you feel it physically in your body. Your body can also go through withdrawal symptoms, craving touch and the presence of your partner.

What is broken heart syndrome?

In rare cases, the emotional agony of heartbreak or loss could actually ‘break’ your heart.

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, dubbed ‘broken heart syndrome’, earned its nickname because it can be triggered by grief or a big breakup, and weakens the heart by swelling part of it. This can happen when someone undergoes severe emotional distress such as the loss of a loved one. The condition is rare but women are more likely to develop it than men, and most patients make a full recovery. It’s been suggested that Nothing Compares 2 U singer Sinead O’Connor might have suffered from the condition. A study by the University of Aberdeen has found people diagnosed with takotsubo have an above-average risk of death for at least five years after diagnosis. What are the symptoms of broken heart syndrome? They can mimic those of a heart attack, including: Chest pain Shortness of breath Sweating Dizziness
These symptoms may begin as soon as minutes or as long as hours after an emotionally or physically stressful event.

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