All it takes is one look, at a face and/or body with features and symmetry that correspond to beauty criteria we’re not even aware of, and our orbitofrontal cortex comes to life, and our adrenal glands release noradrenaline.
Similar to adrenaline, this chemical messenger, emitted in response to stress, puts the body into a state of turmoil, producing a racing heart, dilated pupils, flushed cheeks, a loss of appetite and an inability to sleep.
If Nature hadn’t been so cleverly designed, we’d be catapulted into a state of shock by this surge of noradrenaline, inducing a flight response. But this wave of noradrenaline is followed by one of dopamine, the happiness hormone, which gives us the motivation and strength to approach our object of desire, allowing the adventure to begin, and potentially develop … (1)
Once contact has been established, the couple start their mating ritual, prompted by the species’ instinct for reproduction which seeks to initiate sexual relations (2).
This is driven once again by dopamine, supported by testosterone and to a lesser degree, oestrogen, in both men and women. To learn more about testosterone, check out our blog on the top 5 testosterone boosters. Desire may actually be the result of an imbalance between what are termed ‘excitatory’ mechanisms (based on dopamine, testosterone and oestrogen) and ’inhibitory’ ones (based, in particular, on serotonin, prolactin and opioids).
Either way, sexual intercourse produces two possible direct effects:
The first activates the reward circuit: the partner is associated with pleasure and physiological reward; he or she is missed when absent. In a different way, the second – related more to childhood - produces an attachment, and again, the partner is missed when absent(3).
In both cases, it is highly probable that the loved one’s absence produces a very specific reaction: a drop in serotonin levels… similar to that experienced by people suffering from depression. It’s that feeling of missing the partner.
It’s interesting to note that the way people in love function at a hormonal and behavioural level is actually similar to drug addicts (4)!
Once a couple has moved beyond this first, ‘sex-driven’ stage – being ‘blinded’ by love (it’s oxytocin rather than love that causes this), missing their ‘other half’, passionate reunions - they either break up, and go on to experience this ‘love at first sight’ explosion of hormones with somebody else, or they settle into a relationship of enduring love… which involves its own set of chemical reactions.
The most important chemical associated with building a lasting relationship is anandamide. This neurotransmitter plays a role in mood regulation, memory, appetite, pain, cognition, and emotions (5).
And it turns out that this molecule which has a calming effect on lovers, putting them in a state of quiet happiness, is actually an endogenous cannabinoid!
Having said that, it‘s neither magical nor everlasting: in order for levels of oxytocin, dopamine, anandamide and serotonin to be maintained in either partner, the conditions that existed when these chemicals first emerged need to be reproduced as much as possible. In terms of sexuality, there are certain natural stimulants, such as damiana (its Latin name being Turnera aphrodisiaca), which can also provide effective support.
Kindness, affectionate gestures, looks, tender words, moments of playfulness, togetherness, exchanging compliments, sharing, dancing, embracing, etc.: shows of affection and tenderness are ultimately what sustains a long-lasting relationship.
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