Love. It’s one of the most powerful sensations on earth and witches, witch doctors and other sorcerers have been trying to create potions to control it for millennia.
But instead of eye of newt and frogs’ legs, our modern day sorcerers, behavioural scientists, are looking at love potion ingredients that are made by the brain – hormones.
Studies by experts on romantic love have been making inroads into how our body’s chemistry drives our behaviour in romantic relationships and what we can do to keep love alive.
They have identified three stages of a romantic relationship, each driven by different hormones:
The Lust stage
Driven by the sex hormones, testosterone and oestrogen, this is the easy first stage of love. It’s love at first sight and the cause of many one night stands. According to Anthropologist, Dr Helen Fisher, the lust phase evolved in humans to get us to look for a lot of partners.
Surprising fact: Scientists have determined that the longer your ring finger is, compared to your index finger, the more testosterone you were exposed to in the womb and the better you are at assimilating complex information.
The Love stage
The second stage is love – the time when a relationship most represents an addiction. You can think of nothing else but the subject of your desires and you can’t wait until the next ‘fix’ of being with them. Scientists think that three main chemicals are involved in this stage; adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin. It’s suggested that love evolved to allow us to focus mating energy on one specific person at a time.
Adrenaline & cortisol – the stress hormones
Adrenaline and cortisol are released by the body when you feel strong emotion such as fear, anger, excitement and, in this case, attraction to your romantic interest. Adrenaline is responsible for the fast beating of your heart when you think about or see your lover. It also gives you focused attention, craving, euphoria, energy and the motivation to win life’s greatest prize – a mate. In a study by Dr. Timothy Loving of the University of Texas, an increase in cortisol was observed when newly-in-love participants were shown a photograph of their romantic partner and were asked to describe the moment of falling in love with them.
Dopamine – the reward chemical
Another study by Dr. Fisher examined the brains of newly ‘love struck’ couples and discovered they have high levels of dopamine. This natural chemical stimulates the reward centre of the brain in the same way as cocaine, triggering an intense rush of pleasure. The association between your romantic interest and the feeling of pleasure makes you want more – in the same way drug addicts crave another fix.
Serotonin – the happiness hormone
Serotonin plays an important role in regulating mood, anxiety and happiness and features heavily in romantic love. In fact, a 2014 study in China found that young adults with a genetic makeup that produced higher serotonin levels in the brain were more likely be in a relationship than those with genes that produced less serotonin. A drop in serotonin is also associated with depression, where the capacity for intimacy is often reduced.
The Attachment stage
Attachment is the bond that allows us to stick with a partner — at least long enough to raise children and ensure the continuation of the human species. There appears to be two major hormones involved in this phase; oxytocin and vasopressin.
Oxytocin – the cuddle hormone
Oxytocin is a powerful hormone released by both men and women during orgasm. It also plays a major role during childbirth and mother-child bonding. Scientists think it probably deepens the feelings of attachment and makes couples feel much closer to one another after sex. The theory goes that the more sex a couple has, the deeper their bond becomes.
A study by Ruth Feldman at Bar-Ilan University in Israel compared oxytocin levels in new lovers and singles. The period of falling in love exhibited oxytocin levels that where the highest ever found by the researchers. Feldman thinks there’s a positive feedback loop associated with oxytocin, with the hormone driving loving behaviours such as cuddling and also being released due to those behaviours.
Another study at the University of Bonn in Germany suggests that oxytocin also plays a role in maintaining relationships. The study monitored a first meeting between straight male study participants and an attractive woman. When given oxytocin via a nasal spray before the meeting, the males who were already in a stable relationship kept a greater physical distance from the woman in the lab compared with single guys given oxytocin and with single and “taken” guys given a placebo.
You can buy oxytocin as a nasal spray, but don’t rush out to buy some just yet – other studies have downplayed the role oxytocin plays as the ‘love hormone”, finding that it intensifies various types of social behavior, including fear and anxiety, not just romantic behaviour.
Vasopressin – the bonding hormone
Vasopressin is another important hormone in the long-term commitment stage of a relationship, mostly for men. It bonds them to their female partner and children, promoting monogamy, bonding and mate guarding. Its potential role in long-term relationships was discovered when scientists looked at the prairie vole, a small rat-like mammal that typically mates for life. When male prairie voles were given a drug to suppress the effect of vasopressin, the bond with their partner deteriorated immediately. They lost their devotion and failed to protect their partner from other males. It’s not hard to see why vasopressin evolved in humans – it keeps men around to protect and provide for their children.
Life hacks to supercharge your love chemistry
Whilst your genes and age play a large role in your body’s chemistry, there are many things you can do to increase your levels of these ‘love’ hormones and keep the excitement and deep love in your relationship:
You can release oxytocin by cuddling, massaging and stroking each other. Sex with orgasm is also a sure fire way to ramp up your oxytocin levels. If either of you struggles to reach orgasm on a regular basis perhaps try some sex toys like a female stimulator or visit a sex therapist for help.
Sit in the sun or go on a Summer holiday
Researchers have found that raised serotonin levels are associated with exposure to bright light and the hours of sunlight in a day. Try sitting in the sun when you can or book a holiday to somewhere with long Summer days. If you work in a dark office try to increase the light levels by opening blinds or using mirrors to reflect sunlight into the room.
Do novel and challenging activities with your partner
Relationship researcher, Professor Arthur Aron, recommends doing activities with your partner that are novel and challenging. This delivers adrenaline & cortisol to your brain – the hormones of new love that will inject some excitement back into your relationship.
Celebrate successes and show gratitude
Recognise your partner’s successes, no matter how small, to trigger the reward centre of their brain. A success could be weight loss or meeting a deadline at work. It could be coaching a team to a win. Recognise and celebrate these successes to drive the ‘feel-good’ hormones in the brain. Similarly, thank your partner when they do something for you.
Research suggests that exercise increases serotonin function. Try exercising with your partner – aim for a level that makes you fatigue. If life pressures mean you can’t spare the time then try doing a 4 minute Tabata workout together.
Do fun things together
Create a positive association between being with your partner and having fun – this creates a positive feedback loop. Having a regular date night that involves laughter and fun activities is an easy way to create this positive association. Need some ideas? Try our online tool that helps you find the perfect activity to suit the situation.
One study found that meditation increased dopamine levels, so try signing up for a meditation or mindfulness class together.
Consider testosterone therapy
Testosterone plays an important role in both sexual interest and sexual responsiveness . A recent episode of Catalyst, the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s (ABC) science show, discussed the impacts of using synthetic testosterone to increase women’s libido if their natural levels are low. After trying it herself, the show’s presenter was convinced enough of the benefits to continue using it.
Researcher Professor Susan Davis of Monash University also recommends testosterone treatment for women aged over 35 with low libido and other symptoms. Testosterone therapy can also be used to treat low libido in men. See the advice of your doctor if you have reduced libido and other symptoms of low testosterone.
Sometimes there may be underlying medical conditions that are interfering with your body chemistry. For example, depression is associated with low levels of serotonin. Go see your doctor to see what treatments may help.
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