Love is a powerful feeling that can signal the existence of a strong bond, mutual affection, and a healthy attachment between two people. However, love can feel like a nebulous phenomenon, being in love causes tangible changes in the human brain and body. In addition to helping us feel happy, excited, and confident, love can make us healthier, alleviate our pain, and enhance our trust in others. Below, we’re going to cover the physical, mental, and emotional side effects of being in love.
Love Can Alleviate Pain
In a study on women in committed relationships, researchers found that participants experienced less pain when they viewed a picture of their partner. This pain-relieving quality of romantic love is thought to work via stimulation in the brain’s reward systems that can produce an effect similar to the reaction that occurs when we take painkillers.
Love Can Mimic Addiction
You may have heard that being in love can feel like an addiction. This sentiment is used to explain the initial attraction and euphoria we often feel when we’re in love. The truth is, love produces many of the same changes in our brains that certain substances do. Specifically, love can activate the same part of the brain that leads to addiction to opiate drugs.
When we’re in love, we often experience increased production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is also activated when we experience addiction. The hormone oxytocin also produces euphoric feelings that are similar to those produced by opiate drugs. Like dopamine, it is also considered a "love neurotransmitter."
If being in love can imitate the effects of specific substances, can substances also affect feelings of love? Researchers Brian Earp and Julian Savulescu argue that certain substances can act as a “love drug” in their book Love Drugs: The Chemical Future of Relationships. The book’s main content is an analysis of the impact of biochemical processes on relationships – reinforcing the idea that being in love can have just as much of a biological impact as eating or sleeping.
Love Can Lead To Weight Gain
Many people experience weight fluctuations when they’re in relationships. A study of 169 newlyweds found that there is a strong link between happiness in marriage and increases in weight.
Love Can Activate Your Empathetic Response
Many people notice that they become more empathetic when they’re in love. Recent research has found that there is a specific part of the brain, the anterior insular cortex, that controls empathy. When you love someone, activity in this part of the brain can increase. At the same time, activity in the area of the brain that is concerned with your self-interest may decrease. When you fall in love with someone, you may find that you care more about other people in the world and less about yourself.
Love Can Make You Healthier
Research suggests love can help us increase our life expectancy. In men, marriage has been shown to decrease the chances of experiencing Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease. Similarly, women in happy marriages have been shown to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels than those who experience reduced marital satisfaction.
There is an established link between our social connections and life expectancy. A relationship that includes not only social support but also the health benefits of romantic love can help us live longer. Social connections are also connected to mental and emotional wellness, which can help improve physical well-being.
Love Can Cause You To Lose Sleep, Eat Less
Being in love can cause the brain to produce specific chemicals, like norepinephrine and cortisol, that can cause a stress response in the body. While love is not necessarily a negative form of stress, it can still have significant physical effects. The elevated state that we often experience when we’re in love can make sleep elusive. In one study, young people who were in the early phases of relationships reported experiencing fewer hours of sleep each night than controls. Researchers in the study noted that this was likely due to the “hypomanic state” that romantic love was producing in adolescents.
You may have also noticed that you’re less hungry when you’re in love. The release of norepinephrine can cause a loss of appetite. You may also be less inclined to seek the satisfaction that food can bring because of elevated serotonin levels. Serotonin is a brain chemical that helps us feel fulfilled and happy—and it is often increased when we are in love.
Love Can Give You Butterflies In The Stomach
When you’re around a romantic interest, you may experience a rapid heartbeat, excessive sweating, a flushed face, and the sensation of butterflies in one’s stomach. These physical changes are thought to be due to sexual attraction. The butterflies-in-the-stomach phenomenon, specifically, is a result of the brain-gut connection. Our stomachs and brains are connected through the vagus nerve, which can be stimulated by heightened excitement. This connection is why we often feel fluttering in our stomachs when we’re near a new love.
Love Can Affect Your Focus
If you’ve ever tried to study for a test while you’re newly in love with someone, you may have found that focusing was a tall task. Recent neuroscientific research suggests there’s a reason for this lack of concentration. According to one study, feelings of love are correlated with a decrease in control over our cognitive functioning. This association can make it harder to pay attention to tasks and retain new information.
Love Can Increase Attachment
Often, when we are newly in love, we want to spend as much time with our new romantic interest as possible. When you are physically close to your partner—through cuddling, kissing, or sex—your body produces a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin can increase your feelings of attachment with your significant other, creating a bond and making you feel more comfortable.
Research shows that this sense of safety may be due to oxytocin leading to an increase in our trust in our partner and a decrease in our concern about potential untoward behavior. This shift can be especially important for people with avoidant attachment styles, who may have difficulty being vulnerable with others.
Love Can Reduce Symptoms Of Depression
The above-mentioned brain changes that occur when we’re in love can also help improve our mental health, often alleviating symptoms of disorders like depression. In one study, researchers found that couples who reported high levels of marital satisfaction experienced a decrease in depressive symptoms. The hormone oxytocin is thought to be partially responsible for this effect.
Effects Of Love At Different Stages Of A Relationship
A study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that researchers could determine which stage of a relationship a person was in by scanning their brain using an MRI machine. The brain activity of a person in the early stages of falling in love showed increased activity in the brain’s reward center. During this phase, the person would eagerly anticipate seeing their new love, which would cause an increase of endorphins in the brain. At the same time, the brain of someone who was in the process of breaking up with their significant other showed steep drops in activity in the same reward center area.
Navigating Love With Online Therapy
Studies show that online therapy can be a helpful form of care for individuals experiencing complicated emotions related to love. For example, in one study, researchers found that online therapy could help reduce loneliness, along with the psychological challenges that often accompany that emotion. The study also mentions that the overall quality of life of participants improved after attending online therapy sessions, and social anxiety symptoms decreased.
If you’d like help in your search to understand relationships, loneliness, communication, or other concerns related to love, consider reaching out to a therapist through an online therapy platform like BetterHelp. You can participate in online therapy remotely, which can be helpful if you’re not comfortable discussing your love life in person. You’ll also be able to contact your licensed therapist outside of sessions. If you forgot to mention something during therapy or have a question about love and relationships, you can send your therapist a message, and they will respond to you as soon as they’re able.
Being in love can make us feel strong positive emotions, modify our brain chemistry, and produce notable changes in our bodies. Love can also elicit powerful emotions that are not always easy to understand. If you’d like help working through your feelings about love, consider reaching out to an online therapist. With the right tools and support, you can foster healthy, loving relationships.
Below are some commonly asked questions on this topic:
Can love be chemically induced?
While the full scope of “love” as we know it is not something we can just switch on and off with the help of drugs or unconventional medicines, there is a fascinating overhaul scientific research norms taking place right now. The book Love Drugs by Brian Earp and Julian Savulescu explores the chemical future of relationships and how certain substances like MDMA may be able to initiate the chemical process of falling in love.
The highly controversial subject matter of real-life love drugs aims to demystify this topic with modern anecdotes, and has spurred great conversations around drug assisted therapy, MDMA enhanced relationship counselling, and the ethical implications of relationship drug based interventions.
In this fascinating account of Earp and Julian Savulescu, the book argues such questions; would human welfare be better off with the assistance of love drugs? Would romantic desires come more naturally with the active ingredient MDMA? Can the wholly available study posed through the engaging storytelling of Brian Earp and Julian Savulescu have transformative implications for couples therapy and western medicine as we know it? This remains to be seen, as the book argues, but the fascinating philosophical debate rages on.
What kind of drug is love?
Love is often likened to taking a drug, because of its effects on the brain that look similar to taking excess oxycodone. After conducting research on rats in a clinical setting, research fellow scientists and associate director neuroscientists found in vivid experimental detail that the active ingredient in ecstasy reflects either the nature of love chemically in the brain, or the “high” feeling of love. A thoughtful and ethical consideration of this drug-like reaction in love allows the broadest thinking audience to implement ethical tools that ensure they are approaching relationships in a balanced, informed way.
For example, things like domestic abuse and post traumatic stress disorder can occur when one loses control of their mental state and brain chemical balance. Vulnerable sexual minorities and other troubled groups can really benefit from legitimate therapeutic tools like drug assisted therapies in a clinical setting, which can curb domestic abuse. But some conservative religious groups with conservative drug control and the most demanding moral philosophers often don’t support drug assisted therapy.
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