Medical Wellness: The biology of love

Health and Wellness

Emotions are powerful. They can even change the physiological makeup of our bodies. The two most powerful emotional responses, love and fear, are particularly adept at creating physical responses within us that have ramifications throughout all aspects of our individual health and wellness and our interpersonal relationships. Love is life and that it is the focus here.

Love has three stages: lust, attraction and attachment. Lust causes the release of sexual hormones and creates the impetus for procreation. This stage of love has been shown scientifically to last approximately as little as two weeks and as long as three months. Only rarely does unadulterated lust survive past that cycle.

Attraction is the stage of love that allows for a long-enough tolerance of one’s partner to see offspring brought forth. It has a duration of anywhere from one to three years. It is associated with the development of nerve growth hormone (NGH) and is present only in newly attracted individuals. This is because it requires more time than lust allows for development and the nerves and synapses generated have a physical capacity to last about one year. Residual structures of this synaptic development can withstand another two years at most before they physically break down altogether.

Attachment, the final phase of love, can last decades and gives rise to the ability of individuals to create lasting relationships, whereby stability can be created while children are raised to full maturity. In the attachment phase of love the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin are at their peak levels. These chemicals create a sensation of bonding and are released during sex. Oxytocin and vasopressin also generate feelings of generosity. They inhibit the action of hormones that create symptoms for dependence on and withdrawal from addictive substances (especially opiates).

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Addicted to love
Love is bliss. Love conquers all. Love heals. Love sooths. (Loss of) Love hurts. (Loss of) Love kills. (Loss of) Love bleeds. All of these clichés are repeated endlessly around the world. Why? Because they are true. The collected feelings, thoughts, emotions and psycho-physiological responses grouped together in this thing called “love” are a mammalian response mechanism that ensures the preservation of the species.

Why are these universal perceptions in place? Simply put: Because pheromones, dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and amphetamines are released in a constant stream by the brain while we are in love. These are the hormones that directly affect sensations of euphoria, invincibility, confidence, attentiveness, generosity and many other “positive” emotions. Remember also that some of these hormones not only cause “happiness,” they also block “sadness.”

As an aside, the cliché “love bleeds” is also accurate: Love hormones thicken the blood to a healthy consistency. Love is good for your cardio-vascular system. Its hormones also cause the lungs to open further, so love also facilitates breathing.

Note that many of these innate chemicals, when in too high or too low a concentration, cause the symptoms for depression. Amphetamines are responsible for alertness, excitability, vigor, concentration and well-being.
Amphetamines are also addictive. If love is lost, then all the hormones that create a tolerance or resistance to addiction become imbalanced and the chemicals that cause the symptoms of a broken heart (panic, depression, distraction, boredom, complacency, violence, anxiety, suicide, psychosis, etc.) proliferate.

Many of these chemicals also affect appetite and metabolism. Depression resulting from withdrawal symptoms has another side effect: If serotonin and amphetamines are lowered, they can no longer control hunger. It’s true: Breaking up does make you fat.

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Shot through the heart
Why is the heart considered the source or site of love? Because most of the hormones concerned with this emotion are stored in some level within, or transported by way of, this organ. Many of them have a direct effect on blood pressure and heart rate. The reactions and sensations these chemicals stimulate are perceived in the chest and throat. Thus, it’s only natural to literally feel your emotions in your heart.

In summation, being in love, or experiencing a love for others, causes a biological waterfall of responses that maintains healthful appetite, allows for better blood circulation and respiration and aids stress management, logical and rational thought processes and stable moods. The chemicals released by love protect us from the hormones that cause anxiety, depression, irrational thoughts as well as emotional and physical diseases.

A loss or lack of love (or a perception of it) can literally kill us. Babies who are not touched and coddled are not stimulated, do not release the chemicals that cause the development of nerves and do not produce the hormones required to maintain healthful biological systems. With so many necessary biological functions growing out of a response to love, it is no wonder that many babies who are not given attention actually die.

So, what we said at the beginning is true: Love is life. People, pets and plants thrive where there is love and care. Love feels good because it promotes health and wellness. We yearn for love, we need it, not because society tells us to get married and have a baby, but because without love we are literally dying.

Jack Kirven holds an MFA in Dance from UCLA and a national certification in personal fitness training through NASM.
— Q-Notes’ “Health and Wellness” column rotates between physical fitness, spirituality, green living and medical wellness.

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