Love is in the air! And the brain, it turns out. This mysterious feeling that influences our lives, in one way or another, and that we tend to link to our heart is actually all about chemicals in the brain. The typical use of the word ‘love’ actually describes a variety of different feelings, which come from different molecular processes in the brain. What are they? Are they good for our brain health? Keep reading to discover the key three shades of love.
When it comes to romance and love we often think of big red hearts, pink and red colour schemes, maybe extravagant gifts or flower bouquets or candle lit dinners - rarely do we think about the brain. But that’s actually the MVP (most valuable player) of the game.
Those feelings and sensations that love gives us, that we often struggle to describe, aren’t down to the blood-pumping organ at all. They are in fact down to the thought-provoker, the brain. And there’s a few processes we’re trying to describe when it comes to love - hence the challenge in really pinning down what love feels like.
So, what’s happening?
This is the most physical shade of love, linked to our desire for sexual gratification. But the origin of lust sits in the brain, specifically in the hypothalamus, which stimulates the production of sex hormones like testosterone and oestrogen and endorphins, which increase our libido.
Sexual gratification can be achieved both within a romantic relationship or in its absence. So we don’t need a partner to reap the health benefits it entails in terms of wellbeing, mood and reduced stress.
But be cautious: lust can affect our ability to reason, and our self-control. So try to avoid solely operating on lust when it comes to looking for love or the one, so we don’t end up overlooking other important relationship factors, like similarities or differences that might make or break a relationship in the future.
Attraction is that complex feeling which we tend to get at the beginning of a romantic relationship, the excitement and feeling like we’re "falling in love". Even if closely related with lust, the two can go separately and the mechanism in the brain responsible for attraction is a different one. While the hypothalamus is still the matchmaker, the protagonist hormones are dopamine and serotonin in this case. These two hormones are at the basics of our reward system, which makes us feel good, energetic and alerted.
A too strong feeling of attraction could have its side effects too, as the reward system is linked to low appetite and insomnia. Hence why we often stay up all night talking or forgetting to eat in the first stages of a new relationship! Also, dopamine is linked to addictive behaviour, which in the case of attraction could lead to emotional dependence on the person we fall in love with. So again, appraoch cautiously.
Attachment is the most long-lasting form of love. It can be found in healthy romantic relationships mixed with some attraction and lust, but it can also be completely free from those when it turns to affection for our loved-ones, like friends and family. When we create bonds of affection, our hypothalamus releases oxytocin, also known as the love hormone. Oxytocin is the protagonist in the mum-baby relationship, in creating social connection and friendships, as well as in romantic relationships. The more the relationship is positive and rewarding, the more oxytocin is released, thus strengthening the attachment. This makes us feel happy, protected and reduces stress.
Ideally we want to feel a balanced attachment in our relationships, especially the romantic ones. This means we feel able to rely on both ourselves and our partners in times of need, not solely on one or the other.
Can we boost our love hormones?
If we are in one of those times in our life when we feel lonely, detached from the people around us, not really in the mood for sex and without potential partners at the horizon, we might feel as lacking that feeling-good effect that the different love hormones have on our brain. But there are plenty of things we can do to get that positive boost and maintain a balanced level of endorphins, serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin in our brain. Here are some you could enjoy:
1. Cuddle your pets: when things with humans become a bit difficult, our animal friends are always there to support and cheer us up, aren't they? We all probably know the calming effect that cuddling our cats or dogs has on us, but we might have not realised that it's oxytocin itself involved here. Obviously it's true love!
2. Get a massage: this simple act of self-care that we can get once in a while as a treat for ourselves is actually one of the most powerful boosters of love hormones, as it triggers the release of all those lovely hormones that make us feel good. Our senses are stimulated, our body gets cuddled and our mind can rest comfortably for a while.
3. Listen to music: music is well-known for stimulating a positive mood and it's a very easy way to boost love hormones in the brain as well. Just turn on your favourite chill out playlist and serotonin will start flooding around. If you play an instrument in a group or sing in a choir, the effect will be even larger because of the empathic connection that rises with other people. Don't worry if it’s not a talent you’ve mastered, going to a concert will have a similar positive impact in boosting your endorphins as well.
4. Do physical activity: getting our body moving is a great way to boost endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. Just make sure you choose a form of exercise you enjoy, since forcing yourself to workout if you don't like to doesn't really do the job. Little hint: exercise outdoors and with others can maximise the positive effects. Also try yoga as a part of your exercise routine, as it has got the added power of boosting oxytocin as well.
5. Laugh: laughing is known to be the best medicine, and there's some truth behind the legend. In fact, laughter is a natural booster of our endorphins, making our brain feel as happy-go-lucky as when we fall in love. So always nurture situations when you can have a genuine laugh, don't worry about looking silly. Research suggest we even look more attractive when we laugh!
6. Be altruistic: doing something nice for others with no return can actually have a big return on our mind thanks to an oxytocin release. And it's not just about supporting our friends and family: a random act of kindness towards someone on the street or on a bus is a booster for positive feelings too, as well as supporting a cause that we care about.
Be our Valentine: love doesn't exist in a single form, and the positive effects that the love hormones have on our brain (and body and mind) can be reached in multiple ways: from a date to our life partner, from family and friends to our pets. And ultimately, we can find love by taking care of ourselves. So don’t let it get you down this Valentine’s day, if you’re not with the one, or even making plans - there’s plenty of love to go around whether we’re single pringles, taken bacons, or not looking for lovers.