The process of falling in love may be universal, but until recently, our understanding of the mechanisms that contribute to romantic love (and its effects on us) was limited.
Now, a growing field of “love science” is discovering the impact this powerful emotion can have, psychologically and physiologically.
One of the most recent studies, published last month in the journal Behavioral Sciences, found that the brain reacts differently when a person is in love, essentially making the loved one the center of its attention.
Researchers from the University of Canberra and the University of South Australia surveyed 1,556 young adults who identified themselves as “in love” about their emotional reaction to a partner, their behavior around them, and the attention they paid to them.
They concluded that in romantic love, a mechanism known as the behavioral activation system (BAS) is activated, which causes a person to prioritize their loved one above all else.
Researchers from the University of Canberra and the University of South Australia surveyed 1,556 young adults who identified as “in love” about their emotional reaction to a partner. They concluded that in romantic love a mechanism known as the behavioral activation system (BAS) is activated, which causes a person to prioritize their loved one above all else.
One of the best-documented effects of love is how it can reduce chronic inflammation and, as a result, the risk of serious diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers (file image)
As lead researcher anthropologist Adam Bode explained, this link to BAS “shows that, although love is about strong emotions, ultimately the evolutionary goal is behavior: to make us chase our partners, care for them, and have a lot of sex.” “. .
This change in behavior is governed by chemical alterations in the brain, adds researcher Dr. Phil Kavanagh: “We know the role that oxytocin (the ‘love hormone’) plays in romantic love, since when we receive waves of it that circulate by our nervous system and bloodstream when we interact with our loved ones.
“However, the special importance that loved ones acquire is due to the combination of oxytocin with dopamine (the ‘feel-good hormone’), which our brain releases during romantic love.”
This, in turn, activates brain pathways associated with positive feelings, causing us to continue that behavior.
But not only the BAS system is activated: love triggers a massive physiological reaction throughout our body.
While you might think bed sharing would lead to more sleep disruptions, sleeping with your partner actually appears to increase rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, important for regulating emotions, memories, and creative problem solving.
In a 2020 study by Christian-Albrechts-University Kiel, Germany, the brains of young couples were scanned over four nights, while they slept together and apart. This showed that although bed sharing caused more discomfort due to limb movement, it also led to better quality sleep.
Researchers have discovered that the love hormone (stimulated by touching and hugging) stimulates hair growth. The 2023 study, published in Scientific Reports, builds on existing research showing that oxytocin promotes the growth of dermal papilla cells that play a vital role in hair growth (file image)
“While your body is a bit unruly when you sleep with your partner, your brain is not, and it could give you an extra boost when it comes to your mental health, memory and problem-solving,” said lead researcher Henning Johannes. Drews.
Another recent discovery is the impact that love has on our gut microbiome. This diverse community of gut bugs has an effect on everything from digestion to brain function.
Research conducted in 2019 by the University of British Columbia showed that people in close relationships, with sustained physical contact, have the most diverse gut microbes of all. Published in Scientific Reports, this builds on previous studies that showed that a simple kiss can transfer around 80 million bacteria between partners.
One of the best-documented effects of love is how it can reduce chronic inflammation and, as a result, the risk of serious diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.
A study last year by the University of North Carolina found that spending time with a partner reduces the level of C-reactive protein (CRP), a key indicator of chronic inflammation.
Scientists tested CRP levels in 100 people who were in relationships for a month and completed questionnaires about spending time with their lovers.
In an article in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, researchers reported that the more time participants spent with their partner, the lower their CRP levels were the next day.
Meanwhile, a 2019 study found that being in the presence of a loved one can also reduce pain, even if you don’t touch or talk.
Researchers from the Austrian University of Health Sciences recruited 48 couples and tested their resistance to pain when they were alone and again when their loved one was in the room. They found that both men and women seemed to be more resilient when they were with their romantic partner.
“Talking and touching have repeatedly been shown to reduce pain, but our research shows that even the passive presence of a romantic partner can reduce pain,” said study author Stefan Duschek, a professor of health psychology.
Research has found that the dopamine surge associated with seeing a significant other usually decreases after a breakup. The theory is that it is nature’s way of allowing us to move forward (file image)
The basis for many of the physiological effects of love is the release of oxytocin (which is also responsible for the euphoria we feel when we fall in love).
Oxytocin is well known for relaxing us, helping us bond with our partners, and reducing stress.
And it can help with stress-related intestinal disorders. A study by Penn State College of Medicine in the US, published in the Journal of Physiology, showed that oxytocin can reduce stress-related digestive symptoms, including constipation, bloating and nausea, as it increases contractions of the stomach muscles.
Furthermore, researchers have discovered that the love hormone (stimulated by touching and hugging) stimulates hair growth. The 2023 study, published in Scientific Reports, builds on existing research showing that oxytocin promotes the growth of dermal papilla cells that play a vital role in hair growth.
Love also promotes an increase in dopamine, which influences many bodily functions such as memory, movement, and mood. In January, a study by neuroscientists in the United States showed that dopamine levels increase when we anticipate being with our lover.
If we are going to meet for dinner with our partner, for example, dopamine will trigger in the hours before, motivating us to make the trip. (If we’re just meeting with, say, a work acquaintance, that dopamine surge doesn’t happen, so we may choose to stay home.)
The increase in dopamine from love is beneficial for our health, neuroscientists said, because it prompts us to maintain those bonds. It may also explain why some relationships are so difficult to get over.
After a breakup, this reaction usually diminishes, so even if you meet again, there is less momentum. The theory is that it is nature’s way of allowing us to move forward. But some people don’t progress as quickly as others, and the study authors believe this may be due to a faulty dopamine response.
“It’s possible that, for these people, the dopamine signal associated with their partner is not adapting after the loss, essentially stopping their processing of the loss or breakup,” says lead researcher Zoe Donaldson. “A broader goal is to identify those biological changes that help people get their lives back on track, which may lead to personalized therapies or even medications.”
Meanwhile, unrequited love can lead to addictive-like behavior, says Dr. Emilia Vuorisalmi, a Finnish physician: “Every cell in our body wants to be with the loved one. If, for some reason, it doesn’t happen, our dopamine levels drop. and the stress hormones, cortisol and norepinephrine, are released to restore them.
“This is evolution’s way of ensuring that our genes are passed on to the next generation. If we don’t achieve our goal, we can try to feel better by self-medicating. “We may start training for a marathon or turn to an inappropriate relationship, alcohol, or drugs to relieve pain, as these behaviors can temporarily increase dopamine levels,” he says.
Hana Burianova, neuroscientist and psychologist at Swansea University, adds: “Unrequited love can increase cortisol and adrenaline, which can cause problems associated with stress, such as inflammation, anxiety and insomnia.
‘Uncertainty also causes stress. Therefore, using online dating platforms and going on different dates all the time can trigger similar stressful responses and be detrimental to your health, especially if it is associated with disappointment. It would be a good idea to take breaks from these types of stressors.”