Love’s about losing your mind, not your heart. New love is a bit like psychosis, with the lovestruck presenting with symptoms of addiction, mania, dementia and obsessive compulsive disorder. Their mood swings between euphoria and depression and their embarrassing behaviour turn them into social pariahs. Here’s what science says about the biology behind this irrational state of being.
Wired for emotion
When you fall in love, the brain goes on an overdrive and releases a cocktail of chemicals and hormones that make the heart race and the head reel. The chemical dopamine in the brain makes you lose your sleep and appetite, while serotonin keeps you besotted. The stress hormone norepinephrine raises heart rate and makes you break into sweat, while oxytocin (released when we touch and hug) and vasopressin (released during sex) increase bonding, intimacy and commitment.
Add to that the body’s naturally occurring morphine called endorphins released by the central nervous system and the pituitary gland to suppress pain and make you feel elated, and you’re in the restless, sleepless and euphoric that can quickly turn into anger and depression when it ends.
Kiss, don’t tell
“Sealed with a kiss” wouldn’t have gone platinum if crooners (and listeners) had been presented with the sobering fact that each 10-second kiss transfers 80 million bacteria to the other person’s mouth. The human mouth is home to 700 varieties of bacteria influenced by genetics, diet and age, but what influences salivary microbiota the most is the oral hygiene of the person closest to us.
A study in the journal Microbiome, which involved a lot of tongue-, swab- and lab-work, also confirmed that the more a couple kisses, the more similar their breath is.
Partners who kiss each other at least nine times a day – that’s lip-locking for just a minute and a half each day – have similar communities of mouth bacteria. Apart from microbiota, kissers also share viruses, which is what has prompted Zika-hit Brazil to advise pregnant women against sharing tongue and saliva with others.
When in doubt, reach out. Hugs and touch buffer against infection, reported a study in Social, Psychological and Personality Science, which found that people who were embraced and felt needed were less likely to catch a cold. Getting hugged also makes symptoms milder, with people who were hugged frequently – at great risk of hugger catching the cold virus – feeling less ill and recovering faster.
Apart from boosting immunity, touch and bonding buffers against depression, anxiety and substance abuse that protects against depression, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
Mom loves you, but differently
Romantic, sexual and maternal love trigger similar, but not identical, brain activity. In all forms of love, the reward-related brain system (subcortical dopaminergic) gets activated and the cortical areas responsible for judgment get suppressed. Among moms, brain areas linked with face recognition are more strongly activated because she needs to quickly read and react to her baby’s facial expressions. Another region activated only moms is the periaqueductal gray matter, which suppress pain and make her go the extra mile for her baby. She also has higher levels of the hormone oxytocin, which boosts the mother-child bond.
Touch and skin contact with newborns lowers infections, boosts growth and pain tolerance in healthy babies and lowers the chance of premature, underweight babies dying after birth, report researchers in Pediatrics .
Food for love
Is the way to the heart through the stomach? Much like illicit drugs and other psychoactive substances, some foods directly influence the reward pathways of the brain by triggering an interplay between neurochemicals and hormones such as dopamine, opioids, endocannabinoids, leptin, and insulin. Substances in chocolate, for example, affect opioid and endocannabinoid neurotransmission, while nutmeg, alters the working of dopamine in the brain.
But there’s little biological proof that aphrodisiacs work just on men. in fact, studies show that women are more sensitive than men to the marijuana-like eeuphoria triggered by endocannabinoids found in chocolate.
Together or apart
If you want to know whether your relationship is likely to last or not, don’t trust your gut. You’d think that couples would do a better job of assessing their own emotions, but a study in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found couples always get it wrong when it comes to predicting the future of their relationship. They tend to focus on its strengths and think things are going right even when they’re not. Parents and friends are more objective and far more accurate at predicting how long a relationship will last, the study found, so it may be a good idea to listen to your pals for once.