By Jennifer Kelton
‘What is love?’ Shakespeare mused.The Great bard was not the first to ask. I suspect our ancestors pondered this question a million years ago as they sat around their campfires of lay and watched the stars.
—Helen Fisher,Why We Love
IT WAS ANOTHER picturesque summer night along the Southern California coast. I sat at the bar of the Mercedes Grill, one of my favorite work spots, while listening to freshly downloaded hip-hop on my iPod and reading over a massive stack of notes about the chemical reactions that occur during the various stages of human love. A man sporting a huge, unkempt mustache and tacky, black rayon Hawaiian shirt sat down next to me and asked what I was doing. He was somewhat gruff—certainly no Johnny Depp. But not wanting to be rude, I answered him.
“It’s research for a book I’m writing.This chapter is about how chemicals in the body are released during each stage of lust, attraction and love. Such as dopamine, phenylethylamine, testosterone, and oxytocin.
He cut me off impolitely and said,“Love does not involve chemicals. Testosterone is the only chemical involved with love.” Okay. Whatever you say, mustache guy. I began to explain further, but he cut me off again, resolute that I was incorrect.
His opposition shocked me. In front of me were numerous articles and two books by Helen Fisher, PhD that reported otherwise, but this man insisted he was right.There were no ands, ifs or buts as far as he was concerned. Not only was his protest puzzling, his closed-mindedness was uneducated.
It was turning into an argument, so I moved to a stool at the other end of the bar.
Months later, I attended a family wedding; all my nieces and nephews were there. I was bowled over at how much they all had grown since I last saw them. My niece Megan had gone from a kid to a teenager seemingly overnight.
We were sitting around talking when the subject of puberty and hormones came up: cone tits, pubic hair, the works. Listening to what they knew, which was very little, I realized that many of us are still operating with the same information about hormones that we got (or did not get) when we were eleven. I thought of mustache guy, who was no more informed than my eleven-year-old niece, or as I was up until a few months ago.
This is not the stuff you learn in health class. Hopefully after you read this you won’t think love is just about testosterone, but will have a better understanding of how hormones influence our brains and bodies. The next time you have that I-just-can’t-get-you-off-my-mind feeling, you’ll know it’s the chemical network built into your DNA.
The truth is, falling in love is equivalent to being on drugs, and I am talking hard drugs. As Dr. Susan Block says, “Falling in love is a natural high finer and smoother than anything you could inject, smoke, snort, drink or swallow. Of course, love is not something you can pick up at the pharmacy or even on the black market. It strikes you like a mystical gift from god, or a practical joke from tricky, fickle old Hot Mama Nature. Then it stirs up the euphoric, love-juicy chemical goo that permeates your cells, creating a place within you where hormones meet holiness, wildflowers bloom, angels dance, and the city never sleeps.”
Hormones 101 At any given time, hundreds of chemicals course through our bodies and affect our behavior.They control everything from eating and sleeping to laughing and crying. Hormones are chemicals that act as messengers, bringing information to and from cells. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that send electric impulses between the neurons of the brain to other cells in the body.
Androgens and Estrogens are steroid groups found in both genders that act primarily as sex hormones.While men and women produce hormones from both groups, women have higher quantities of estrogens, while men have higher quantities of androgens. Testosterone is a member of the androgen group. It enhances libido, increases energy and buffers the immune system in both men and women. Estradiol, estriol, and estrone are estrogens produced when androgens synthesize with enzymes.These hormones, excreted by the reproductive organs (ovaries in women and testes in men) and the brain, intensify the drive to mate and procreate.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter often called the pleas- ure/pain chemical. It is closely associated with sexual desire and addiction. Dopamine also affects the brain functions of movement and emotional reaction. Dopamine increases sex drive by boosting the release of testosterone. According to Helen Fisher,“It’s the neurochemical dopamine in particular that allows us to maintain romantic love’s unique, intoxicating properties, even as we tread water in the tranquil sea of long term attachment.”
Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that also acts as a stress hormone, affecting attention span and impulsiveness. When combined with epinephrine, it is associated with fight-or-flight responses.
To be continued.