Our Love Psychics On Love and Romance

LOVE, NEUROCHEMISTRY, AND CHOCOLATE:
A WORD FROM CUPID, PH.D.

by Linda Dopierala

from CyberHealth, Ivy GreenWell, Editor
Copyright 1999 CyberHealth

Geri & Alfred Webre at EcoNews Service have found editor Ivy Greenwell's CyberHealth to be an innovative source for alternative health. Love and health is the topic of a loving article, reprinted from CyberHealth's February, 1999 issue.

I. FALLING IN LOVE: THE AMPHETAMINE STAGE (DOPAMINE/PEA)

The real secret of true love is that it is not an affair of the heart, but rather chemistry of the brain. A gushing forth of adrenaline-like neurochemicals flooding the brain fuels the attraction between two people. When three of these chemicals combine, the result is infatuation.

These chemicals — PEA or phenylethylamine (which speeds up the flow of information between nerve cells), DOPAMINE (the feel-good chemical) and NOREPINEPHRINE (which stimulates the production of adrenaline and makes our heart race fast) — are responsible for that energized and euphoric feeling that new lovers experience.

The stimulation of these chemicals has the power to override the activity of the part of the brain that governs logical thinking. And, as many distraught parents and friends have found, no amount of logical discussion can persuade someone that the person they think they are in love with is "all wrong for them." Love must stand the test of time to determine if it is true and whether or not the object of one’s love is THE ONE!

II. "LASTING LOVE": THE ENDORPHIN STAGE

How long does this test of time take?

Somewhere between six months and three years, these chemicals gradually stop flooding the brain and the relationship either dies or develops into the next stage, which is true love. Should real love develop, then at this stage a new group of chemicals take over — these are those coveted endorphins that healthy, active people thrive on. Though not as exciting or heart-throbbing as the infatuation chemicals, endorphins, which produce feelings of calm, warmth, intimacy and dependability, are steadier and more addictive. In fact, the longer two people are in love, the stronger the endorphins become.

It is the absence of endorphins that make long-time partners yearn for each other when apart and can, in extreme cases such as death, result in the surviving partner dying of a "broken heart." According to Mark Goulston, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, "Adrenaline-based love is all about ourselves; we like being in love. With endorphins, we like loving."

III. THE ROLE OF OXYTOCIN

A fourth "love" chemical that plays a very important and wonderful part in relationships is oxytocin — a peptide composed of nine amino acids. It is responsible for stimulating uterine contractions during birth, triggering the "let-down" reflex during nursing, and giving new moms that mothering, nurturing feeling towards their baby. However, it also plays a very important role in romantic love.

Often called the "cuddling chemical," oxytocin makes both men and women calmer and more sensitive to the feelings of others. Cuddling and calming are actually Phase II of oxytocin’s effect. Phase I is its power to arouse. In women it signals orgasm by stimulating uterine contractions. Women may be more capable of having multiple or whole-body orgasms as a result of oxytocin overload. In men, moderate concentrations of oxytocin facilitate both erection and ejaculation. Its production is cued by a lover’s voice, a gentle touch, a familiar fragrance, or a certain look.

The more partners touch one another, especially the breasts (and, by the way, men’s breasts are even more sensitive than women’s breasts), the more oxytocin is produced resulting in increased arousal and a better likelihood of achieving orgasm. Other oxytocinogenous zones are the earlobes, lips and nose.

Following the ecstasy, oxytocin promotes the desire to cuddle and may even play a role in inducing high quality REM sleep. (Personally, I think oxytocin is a bit sexist — it makes women want to cuddle and men want to sleep!)

WOMEN BEWARE: It’s important to note one other very unique aspect of oxytocin production. According to "What is This Crazy Thing Called Love?" by Dr. Shirley Glass, "A trick of nature induces women to bond with an inappropriate partner after sex because of oxytocin which enhances orgasms and increases a woman’s emotional attachment to her sexual partner. That may be why you keep the creep with whom you sleep."

WHY DOES EATING CHOCOLATE MAKE YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’RE IN LOVE (ALMOST)?

Chocolate is full of phenylethylamine — a chemical cousin of amphetamine.

So, yes, there’s a definite chemical (upper) response involved. Could this be why chocolate is the #1 choice of lovers on Valentine’s Day?

Chocolate also contains ANANDAMIDE, a compound that binds to the same receptors in the brain as marijuana. Hence the slight feeling of elation.

Now, mind you, the body also produces its own anandamide, and other chemicals in chocolate slow down the breakdown of this interesting anti-depressant.

Ivy: Let me add some more information on the neurochemistry of love, based on Dr. Theresa Crenshaw’s "Alchemy of Love and Lust."

PEA

Phenyl-ethyl-amine (I’ve broken the term into chunks to show you that those biochemical names are really manageable once you see their building blocks) is indeed the great amphetamine of the romance stage of love. It makes us feel at least slightly euphoric and depresses appetite. It also naturally spikes at ovulation. Is it a coincidence that so many women feel wonderful at midcycle and also eat less, due to lower appetite?

Orgasm is another way to increase PEA levels. In spite of endless Reader’s Digest articles, there is really no way to preserve the dopaminergic/PEA-dominated Stage I love (also known as "romance") in your marriage — but satisfying love making is perhaps the closest we can get.

PEA can also surge in response to visual stimuli. Is this the secret of "love at first sight"? Watching a romantic movie can also raise PEA. So can romantic fantasies.

Among supplements, phenylalanine is known to increase PEA levels. And then it’s been suggested that chocolate also does it, but the assertion is disputed by some scientists. They say that it’s rather that chocolate raises serotonin. No mechanism is suggested, but I do have a radically simple suggestion: if you find the taste of chocolate divine, then the sensation of PLEASURE is enough to raise serotonin.

(Parenthetically, just as women seem more oxytocin-dependent than men, so they also seem to be more serotonin-dependent.)

The anti-aging drug DEPRENYL also raises PEA levels. With just the right dose of deprenyl, we see expanded life span in lab animals; with too much, lifespan shortens. In humans, too much PEA has been associated with psychiatric disorders (but certainly not depression). There is apparently just the right range of PEA that we need for optimal neurochemistry. Too much romance, deprenyl, or maybe even chocolate is like too much exercise — it is actually harmful. Still, the majority of us could probably use more romance and more chocolate for optimal health.

If romance ends abruptly, one is liable to show signs of PEA withdrawal, which resemble those of amphetamine withdrawal.

OXYTOCIN

According to Dr. Crenshaw, oxytocin may indeed be the reason why women more than men tend to be "love junkies" or "the slaves of love."

Oxytocin and estradiol synergize to produce heightened sensitivity to touch. Apart from that, Dr. Crenshaw points out that little girls tend to get more cuddling, which generally produces a considerable degree of pleasure regardless of estrogen levels; as the girl gets older and parental cuddling gets less, she may suffer from oxytocin withdrawal.

Along comes the first boyfriend, bringing again the pleasures of loving touch. Her levels of oxytocin restored, the young woman is a goner.

Cuddling a baby also can make a woman eventually want another baby, so she can have another "cuddle object." Nursing makes oxytocin rise so high that some new mothers report orgasm-like sensations. Altogether, oxytocin seems to play a larger part in women’s physiology and well-being, and seems to affect women more profoundly than men; touch starvation may be more devastating for women (especially estrogen-rich young women) than for men. Crenshaw calls this "skin hunger."

Estrogen and affectionate touching (including intercourse) raise the levels of oxytocin. Nipple stimulation is highly recommended as a way to raise oxytocin, since oxytocin may be one of our defenses against breast cancer. It is interesting that celibate women such as nuns seem more susceptible to breast cancer than women who have an active sex life, even it it doesn’t lead to the anti-cancer benefit of early (or multiple) pregnancies. Interestingly, just being around a high-T male strongly affects a woman’s hormonal make-up (negatively if the man is stressing her, but positively if she feels cherished and protected); being around a receptive or at least potentially receptive, hormone-rich woman raises a man’s good hormones as well.

TESTOSTERONE

By now it is well established that testosterone is an aphrodisiac for BOTH sexes, perhaps through the release of dopamine. Women need much less testosterone to sustain their sex drive, perhaps because estradiol and testosterone synergize so powerfully. For instance, estrogens dramatically increase the density of testosterone receptors in the genital area. Testosterone then governs the erectile function of this tissue (and of nipples). The perception that testosterone is a "male" hormone is badly in need of revision, since testosterone-deficient women badly need this magnificent hormone.

In men, testosterone is extremely sensitive to stress, and to feelings of winning or defeat. In the average male, testosterone is released in pulses every twenty minutes or so, and is perhaps the most psychoreactive of all hormones. The feeling of being a loser, a failure in life, can really castrate a man. Conversely, successful, socially dominant "alpha males" tend to have higher T levels than same-age subservient men.

(Gail: . . . easily observed in Washington, D.C., with all those misbehaving politicians. Ivy: The perennial pattern of alpha males has been getting the comfortable endorphins of a supportive marriage AND the dopaminergic high of affairs.)

Being related to dopamine release, testosterone has an obvious influence on the dopaminergic Stage I love. Hence some see it as related to always seeking new lovers in pursuit of that dopaminergic high of new romance. But because testosterone also increases sexual sensation (something Viagra does not do), it could also be argued that the pleasure provided by the regular mate is keener in high-T men, and thus thanks to more satisfying marital sex they also experience more bonding.

A T-deprived woman tends to sink into sexless lethargy. Feeling she is now a libidoless lump, "invisible" to men — read any menopause list — only makes her all the more depressed. But it’s not just a question of sexuality. She has been promised a new life full of PMZ, but no one told her that PMZ crucially depends on adequate testosterone.

Personally, I find low-T life, which translates into low dopamine, hardly worth living. The joke is that if a doctor doesn’t take menopause seriously, the woman should pass him a note that says, "I am out of estrogen, and I have a gun." I can see myself passing a note saying: "I am out of testosterone; what is the number of the suicide hotline?"

Supposedly there are more testosterone receptors in the female brain than in the male brain; don’t ask.

Besides stress, depression, obesity (too much estrone production) and aging, another big factor in low testosterone levels in men is low-fat vegetarian diet. If a man is poorly muscled, becomes impotent before the age of fifty, and is diagnosed with osteoporosis at sixty or even sooner, it is no surprise when he explains that he’s been following a strict vegan diet. Both saturated and MONOUNSATURATED fats (olive oil) tend to raise testosterone levels. WEIGHT LIFTING also increases testosterone levels in both sexes — apparently testosterone is needed for muscle building, and the brain responds to the call from the muscles for more testosterone.

Excessive exercise, however, acts like all excess stress: it lowers the levels of beneficial steroids, including testosterone.

ESTROGENS

In animals, the role of estrogens seems fairly straightforward. The female is not receptive to mating until a surge of estradiol brings her into estrus. When it comes to humans with their year-round mating, I am not sure if we really understand the role of estrogens in female sexuality. Obviously, they are needed for maintaining secondary sexual characteristics, such as a the feminine fat distribution, full lips, bushy hair (you can think of it as the opposite of androgenic baldness), and soft, smooth skin. They make a woman smell sweet (possibly an antioxidant effect). They make her feel wonderful to touch (estriol?). They keep her voice expressive and feminine-sounding. Possibly they affect personality, making the woman more gentle and serene (estradiol is in the main a relaxing hormone). The Eternal Feminine?

Naturally, estrogens play a role in maintaining supple genital tissue (estriol is said to be a particularly effective estrogen for this purpose). And they create receptors for testosterone. Hence with higher levels of estrogens, you need a mere dab of testosterone cream to enjoy a lively libido and keen sexual sensation. And, as we’ve already discussed, estrogens increase oxytocin levels.

Personally, I notice a kind of sensual feeling, which I call the Marilyn Monroe mode, within half-an-hour or so after taking Estrace, which spikes estradiol (which the body then quickly converts into estrone — regardless of whether you swallow the tablet or take it sublingually; you don’t really linger too long in that high-estrogen glow of feeling like a sex goddess, but even a flash of it is nice to experience).

DOPAMINE VS SEROTONIN: WHY PROZAC AND SEX DON’T MIX

The idea that serotonin is all we need to feel happy and peppy misses the point completely. What we need is a good neurotransmitter balance, with good neuropeptides thrown in. If one neurotransmitter, be it dopamine or serotonin, is artificially raised, expect trouble. Dopamine has been called our "reward chemical." It delivers an emotional high. You feel pleasurably excited, energetic, sexy, passionate, euphoric. Crenshaw goes so far as to say that "dopamine addicts you to the person you love." Serotonin, on the other hand, is the tranquility chemical, and it lowers sex drive. In addition, while dopamine lowers insulin, serotonin increases insulin. Now, in men, higher insulin means lower testosterone.

I hasten to say that to my knowledge St. John’s Wort has never been linked to sexual dysfunction; apparently it mildly raises ALL neurotransmitters, not just serotonin.

By the way, dopamine is regarded as having an anti-carcinogenic action, perhaps due to its ability to lower insulin (but I believe there is more to it than that — pleasure has an amazing health-giving power).

Now, falling in love has also been known to regress cancer; could dopamine be involved here? (Again, I’m sure that this is not the entire answer, only at best a part of the answer.)

Protein increases dopamine synthesis, since dopamine requires the precursor amino acid tyrosine, abundant in meat and dairy. That’s why the pleasurable surge of energy after a high-protein meal.

Carbohydrates increase serotonin only if they produce an insulin surge that pushes tryptophan into the brain. Note that you don’t have to rely on carbohydrates and insulin surge to increase serotonin. We enumerated non-fattening ways to more serotonin in CyberHealth 15.

Has excess serotonin been linked to cancer? There are some disquieting questions that have been raised about certain drugs in certain dosages.Now, when you raise serotonin in a natural way such as walking on the beach, you know that’s good for you. Your brain will produce whatever is optimal, and you will metabolize it at a normal rate. So by all means try natural ways of improving your neurochemistry before turning to drugs.

ENDORPHINS AND LASTING LOVE

Instead of being preoccupied with ten ways to preserve romance, Reader’s Digest ought to focus on ways to increase endorphins. Touching and smiling is one way. Another way is simply THINKING LOVING THOUGHTS about one’s mate. It’s like making a deposit in your "love account." Part of maturity is awakening to the fact that we can CHOOSE to focus on the positive rather than the negative. We can choose to make long lists of everything that is wrong with our partner and rehearse these lists in excruciating detail with our friends. Since no one is perfect, and since no one can fulfill all our fantasies, we are doomed to never find the Prince/Princess.

But we can LEARN to be grateful for the marvelous qualities that we can also see in our mates, or at least used to see during the romance stage. Indeed, one of the amazing qualities of the romance stage is that we are freed of negativity, and thus become radiant and all-loving. With maturity, we can consciously choose to be that way: positive, radiant, loving, and overflowing with feel-good endorphins. Need I say that endorphins have been found to strengthen the immune system, protect against cancer, and be great for health and longevity in general?

One of the greatest lessons of maturity is that we can choose to be loving. Instead of being stuck in adolescent-like waiting for love, and the depression that follows as the Prince/Princess fails to appear, we can choose to be affectionate. How does that relate to hormones and neurochemistry? All that we can say at this point is that even being affectionate toward a pet improves one’s neurochemistry — making it more likely that we’ll have the right "chemistry" to attract a loving mate.

IN SUMMARY:

I hope that neither Linda nor I will be accused of trying to reduce the mystery of love to a few chemicals. Of course it is all tremendously complicated. Looking at the chemistry, however, is useful, because it shows us that there are indeed different chemicals at work depending on the stage of love. Women especially need to understand that their particular chemistry makes it easier for them to bond (oxytocin), and thus they need to be more cautious about having "just a fling" with Mr. Wrong.

There is a tremendous difference between an infatuation, and loving someone perceived as the right person. Maybe trying to explain "the right person" in terms of endorphins doesn’t get us very far — but heck, I’m thrilled that we have even this tiny bit of insight!

CyberHealth is presented as a free service for women and health professionals interested in women's health. To subscribe to CyberHealth, e-mail: nhrt@postoffice.worldnet.att.net

To inquire about  !EcoNews! Service, please e-mail: econews@ecologynews.com. Or fax or call: Fax: 604-733-8135 (Canada) Tel: 604-733-8135 (Canada). Copyright 1998 !EcoNews! Service

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