Love, as Willie Nelson once sang, is the greatest healer ever found. Feelings of love strengthen the immune system, keep the mind strong and comfort in times of stress. But recent research into how love works reveals that while the fiery attraction of new romance may cause the heart to race and the head to spin, the real healing power of love lies in long-term relationships that nurture body, mind and spirit – and even build a stronger brain.
Love Begins in the Brain
Though the experience of love remains a mystery in many ways, the biology of love has been investigated in numerous studies. With the help of volunteers, sophisticated imaging and blood samples, psychologists, neurobiologists and specialists in other fields have identified the precise areas of the brain affected by love.
This “internal elixir of love,” as Loyola University psychiatrist Pat Murphy puts it, is at the center of a cycle that works like this: We feel attraction and connection to someone, and that emotion triggers the release of large amounts of several mood-regulating neurotransmitters, including dopamine, adrenaline, norepinephrine, vasopressin and oxytocin.
Romance: The Instant High
The fiery passion of a new romance creates a world of its own, different from other kinds of love. As lovers everywhere know, being in love is euphoric. Your heart races, you can’t sleep, you feel lightheaded and all you can think about is being with the object of your affection. That phase of love is driven by the release of large amounts of dopamine, adrenaline and norepinephrine, powerful chemicals that activate areas of the brain associated with drug addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Dopamine is a “feel-good” chemical associated with pleasure and reward. It’s released in large quantities in response to things like food and sex. Adrenaline and norepinephrine, on the other hand, typically flood the body in stressful situations, triggering heightened senses and increased blood flow that help humans avoid danger. Notably absent from this mix is a rise in serotonin, which promotes feelings of calm and relaxation. Though it causes a surge in well-being, energy and confidence, new love can be a heightened, stressful state.
Love Long, Live Long
If a relationship lasts, the brain eventually becomes tolerant of those addictive, compulsive feelings. Their intensity fades, and chemicals like vasopressin, serotonin and oxytocin enter the mix. These relaxing, comforting neurotransmitters are also released in relationships that don’t have a component of romantic love, such as strong friendships and family connections. When these chemicals are present, love’s long-term healing benefits emerge.
According to research reported by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the release of serotonin and oxytocin reduces stress, supports the immune system, fights disease and may even stave off dementia. That’s why love and connection play a powerful role in staying healthy – and also why loneliness and heartbreak are linked to illness and chronic health problems.
Those “love chemicals” can create changes in the brain itself. Repeated stimulation of neural pathways strengthens them and builds new channels; in other words, love helps “rewire” the brain into permanent, positive pathways.
Unlocking the biology of love does nothing to destroy its magic. So this Valentine’s Day, enjoy the healing power of love along with chocolates, roses and the embrace of your beloved. Such benefits truly do the mind and body good.