Love is a many-splendored thing, indeed. It is often the subject of art, literature and music but no matter how complex and unearthly the magical feeling of falling in love seems, science can perfectly explain the butterflies in your stomach and why people feel they are destined for each other. It can even partly explain why you got left behind or why someone cheated. But they say it is abstract so let us try to translate and compare it into its closest quantifiable elements such as attraction, desire, and commitment.
Our hormones have been associated with behavior, depression, stress, anxiety, manliness, forgetfulness, daintiness, social bonding, reliability, generosity, honesty, risk tolerance and guess what? It is also highly responsible for romance and sexual behavior. Going back to prehistoric times, the first Homo sapiens perhaps never thought of this thing called love. But they felt attraction or an urge to procreate, and they propagated, and later on, became a way more evolved species creating technologies and giant buildings today. If you’ve been thinking all along that all the love stories are controlled by fate, science wouldn’t agree so much as hormones tell a different story. So what are the hormones responsible for such blissful romantic feelings?
Desire and Lust: The Role of Estrogen and Testosterone
Desire or lust is the first stage of love. Both genders experience this stage. The two hormones responsible for desire are estrogen and testosterone. The human body’s immediate reaction to a potential mate is the urge to procreate. The logical part of our brains would say otherwise. But perhaps Sigmund Freud was right in his theory that sexual urges in the unconscious constitute the main human drives. The body is unconscious about all these bodily processes and yet for thousands of years, people do crazy things for someone they have just met. Why is that?
Hormonal changes of a woman’s monthly cycle may be more significant in the arena of attraction and mating. Certain forms of estrogen make women more attractive to men while testosterone also makes men more attractive by helping them achieve more masculinity. Studies suggest that women may dress more provocatively, flirt more, and have a higher probability of becoming more sexually inclined for approximately six days mid-cycle, before and after ovulation. Slight shifts in their scent, skin tone and voice pitch also occur comparable to how certain species in the animal kingdom show off their flamboyant colors to attract their mates.
Both testosterone and estrogen are also at their peak during the follicular phase of a woman’s cycle. The testosterone level in a woman’s body is directly related to the length of the follicular phase. Yes, women have testosterone as well, albeit in smaller amounts compared to men. And unsurprisingly, men with higher testosterone levels have higher sex drives and are somewhat perceives as attractive. Not all men are equally born physically attractive. However, some women tend to gravitate to certain men despite the fact that they are not exceedingly physically attractive. One explanation could be his hormones. He may have higher testosterone that makes him appear more masculine and that tends to attract women particularly during their ovulation period. Testosterone and estrogen also regulate the reproductive system, which is why birth control pills can affect libido.
Attraction is the next stage of love. It is more complicated than just mere desire. This is the period when a person becomes spell-bound to someone and spends most of their time thinking about the other person. Three hormones are responsible for turning rational people head-over-heels into someone. These powerful hormones are dopamine, adrenaline, and serotonin.
Dopamine is the feel-good hormone. It gets activated when something good or pleasurable happens. Have you ever heard people say, “Love is like a drug?” Well, literally it can act that way. The reason why people are addicted to certain drugs is because of dopamine. Drugs stimulate dopamine production and make people drug users feel an elated pleasure. Aside from using drugs, winning and other pleasurable events, high levels of dopamine get released when someone is thinking about or near his or her potential partner or love interest. The feeling of pleasure can be addictive. Who does not want to feel pleasure? The mere act of thinking about a potential partner can give butterflies in the stomach. But then again, those aren’t butterflies. It’s dopamine.
Adrenaline, also known as epinephrine, is a hormone that makes your heart race, makes you feel nervous and sweaty. You breathe faster as if you were being chased by dogs but instead, you just saw your crush. This hormone is produced in some parts of the nervous system and chromaffin cells. When you are attracted to a person, the body’s initial response is stress, causing you to sweat, have a dry mouth, and have a raced heartbeat.
The third hormone responsible for attraction is serotonin. Serotonin is highly responsible for several process and reactions in the body. This includes mood, appetite, and perception of situations. In the case of attraction, serotonin makes a person obsessive-compulsive, which is why a person can go on for several days and months thinking about the person they are attracted to. Sometimes people wonder why they are so obsessed over someone even if it seems illogical. Hormones don’t really work in such a conscious way. Thus, one can trust that as long as the body is able to produce this hormone, there is always a chance of attraction.
During the phase of attraction, all these hormones and chemicals work together with several other neurotransmitters to give feelings of excitement, pleasure, obsession, and even anxiety. It is understandable why people cannot seem to understand what they feel when they are in love because it is all these contrasting feelings from these three different hormones happening all at once. I However, the pleasure somehow dissipates in the third stage causing people to go in separate ways and do that same routine all over again.
The third stage of love is attachment. This is the test if such feelings of love will make a relationship between two people last. After all the excitement, obsession, and pleasure, adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin will go back to normal levels. At this point two other hormones may be released, oxytocin and vasopressin. These hormones initially determine whether a couple will stay together.
Vasopressin, a neurohypophysial hormone found in most mammals including humans, is responsible for feelings of bonding. This hormone stimulates a rewarding feeling for forming lasting bonds with a mate. Studies about vasopressin have been mostly limited to studying animals, specifically prairie vole. Prairie vole is an animal that forms life-long bonds and has intercourse beyond the needs of procreation. Males those who received a suppressant drug with their levels of vasopressin stopped showing devotions and no longer cared to protect them against new potential mates.
Oxytocin is known as the hormone of love. This hormone is produced in the hypothalamus and released into the blood by the pituitary gland. It increases social bonding, strengthens remembering of positive things and interactions, enhances the development of positive relationships. This hormone is present during childbirth and breastfeeding. High levels of oxytocin have been associated with increased generosity and trust. Aside from childbirth and breastfeeding, oxytocin is also released when people hug, kiss or during an orgasm. It promotes long term bonding and stops men in monogamous relationships from being physically close to other women.
In theory, vasopressin and oxytocin are recognized by social science, evolutionary psychology, and neuroscience to be hormones that ensure the togetherness and longevity of a couple to raise a family. Physical intimacy and regular sexual activity keep these hormones at their ideal levels.
Subconscious Hormonal Production vs. Conscious Choices
Although hormones are produced subconsciously, awareness to how we can regulate these hormones is entirely up to us. Being devoted to a partner after the attraction stage can be caused by the hormones eventually causing the ideal levels of vasopressin and oxytocin in the body. It may also be the mere instinct or decision to stop.
We can blame hormones why certain things might have felt so magical and ended up so dramatically tragic. But now that you know how hormones affect love, you can put this knowledge in your favor and consciously decide from there.∎
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