The chemistry of attraction – The internal chemical reactions that make us want to love and mate.
Falling in love is a chemical symphony the body has been wired to play since evolutionary times. When you’re in love, all you care about is your beloved — seeing them, smelling them, planning your life with them and, of course, having incredible sex with them, which helps ensure the propagation of our species.
In each stage of love, from the early rush of new love and the heart pumping excitement to the deeper bonding and security of a long term committed relationship, different chemicals play a prominent role in each different phase. Here’s an explanation of the chemistry of attraction.
Dopamine and PEA (Phenylethylamine)
Brain chemicals PEA and dopamine are the body’s natural version of amphetamines, and they practically gush out during new love. Famed biological anthropologist Helen Fisher asked newly “love struck” couples to have their brains examined and discovered they have high levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. This chemical stimulates “desire and reward: by triggering an intense rush of pleasure. It has the same effect on the brain as taking cocaine! Fisher suggests “couples often show the signs of surging dopamine: increased energy, less need for sleep or food, focused attention and exquisite delight in smallest details of this novel relationship.”
Oxytocin (The Cuddle Chemical)
When men and women reach orgasm, our brains are flooded with feel-good endorphins and the brain chemical oxytocin. Oxytocin is otherwise known as the “cuddle hormone” because it creates feelings of intimacy and bonding. Men might be less impacted by oxytocin because of the higher levels of testosterone in the brains, which explains why they don’t crave a good snuggle after sex. Hence, while the female brain is telling her to curl up with her partner, he might just be thinking how tired or hungry is!
Vasopressin is another important hormone in the long-term commitment stage and is released after sex. Vasopressin (also called anti-diuretic hormone) works with your kidneys to control thirst. Its potential role in long-term relationships was discovered when scientists looked at the prairie vole. Prairie voles indulge in far more sex than is strictly necessary for the purposes of reproduction. They also — like humans — form fairly stable pair-bonds. When male prairie voles were given a drug that suppresses the effect of vasopressin, the bond with their partner deteriorated immediately as they lost their devotion and failed to protect their partner from new suitors.
As a neurotransmitter, serotonin helps to relay messages from one area of the brain to another. Because of the widespread distribution of its cells, it is believed to influence a variety of psychological and other body functions. This includes brain cells related to mood and sexual desire. Low serotonin levels are cited as a cause of depression and low sexual desire. There is also some evidence that female hormones may also interact with serotonin to cause some symptoms to occur or worsen during the premenstrual period, during the postpartum period, or around the time of menopause. Not coincidentally, these are all periods when sex hormones are in flux. Men, on the other hand, generally experience a steady level of sex hormones until middle age, when the decline is gradual.
The initial stage of falling for someone activates your stress response, increasing your blood levels of adrenaline and cortisol. When you unexpectedly bump into your new love, you might start to sweat, your heart races or your mouth goes dry. These are all charming effects of an adrenaline rush.
Norepinephrine functions both as a hormone and a neurotransmitter. As a stress hormone, norepinephrine affects parts of the brain, such as the amygdala, where attention and responses are controlled. Along with epinephrine, norepinephrine also causes the fight-or-flight response, directly increasing heart rate and triggering the drive to want sex.