Being in love is a wonderful, life-changing experience. The heart is often thought to be the only place of enrichment, where feelings begin and flourish, but the body also undergoes changes that can be explained scientifically. The physical effects of love progress throughout the stages of a relationship and deeply contribute to an individual’s overall health – both initially and over time. Heartbreak may be detrimental for those brokenhearted, but falling head over heels creates a beneficial feeling of euphoria and happiness stimulating both emotional and physical health.
Almost everyone experiences romantic love at least once in a lifetime. A condition of being human often triggers a yearning to be intimately connected with another in mind, body, heart and soul. This deeply personal connection manifests internally and grows in the early stages of a relationship. Although music, movies and books document tales of love across time and geography – there is scientific explanation behind why the heart flutters and the stomach feels butterflies during the initial stages of love. This is the result of chemical reactions firing as the brain releases neurotransmitters, which can alter the way a person thinks and feels when a new relationship is starting to blossom.
The physical effects of love are complex and diverse as hormonal influence plays a significant role in shaping emotional experiences as a romantic relationship unfolds. Hormones act as neurotransmitters releasing in stages of closeness and connection to a love interest – these are the same chemical compounds that also stimulate feelings of stress, pleasure and infatuation.
Elevated Cortisol in a New Relationship
The beginning stages of a relationship can be one of the most intense periods of being in love. The first six months of being in love are, “suggestive of the ‘stressful’ and arousing conditions associated with the initiation of social contact.” The hormone cortisol, the stress hormone, raises and is a known culprit in immune system suppression. Elevated levels of cortisol can also interfere with memory and impair overall brain function. Scientists have determined that cortisol levels typically drop after the first year of dating. The hormone stabilizes once a couple has established exclusivity in a relationship and feels more comfortable with each other. During the early days of dating, individuals are more consumed with getting to know their partner, working out differences and establishing a secure connection. Researchers believe that the first six months of dating are the most stressful.
In a small study conducted over a decade ago, researchers tested and observed two groups of people. They studied the physical effects of love in individuals who had recently fallen in love with those that were in long-term relationships. The individuals newly in love had significantly higher levels of cortisol during the first six months of dating than people who were already in established long-term relationships. However, when the researchers tested the subjects 12-24 months later, the newly in love individuals’ cortisol levels had returned to normal. This significant finding proves that there is an adverse biological response to dating in its early phases. These levels don’t accelerate to levels that cause concern, but tactics to manage include music, meditation and relaxation exercises. Couples who balance exciting and adventurous dates with relaxing experiences may find a healthy balance in navigating these cortisol levels.
The “Feel Good” Neurotransmitter
During the beginning stages of a relationship, another well-known neurotransmitter called dopamine floods the brain’s pleasure centers. Dopamine is the chemical neurotransmitter responsible for making humans “feel good” during enjoyable experiences such as sex, indulgent foods and progressively falling in love. Dopamine may also cause humans to crave or overindulge in these enjoyable experiences, or become addicted to these intense feelings. The “high” individuals feel as a result of a surge in dopamine can create a constant yearning for the sensation felt after receiving a pleasurable experience. Dopamine releases in high levels when sensations of attraction are triggered in the brain, it’s the signal to the body that the mind and heart is starting to fall in love.
Oscillating Serotonin Levels
Serotonin is another popular chemical neurotransmitter that scientists have noticed a significant change in during the first year of dating. Serotonin levels typically drop when a person first falls in love. Consequently, individuals may develop a slight obsession for their partner or a sense of infatuation in these early stages. This may help to explain why individuals ignore red flags in the beginning of a relationship and other signs that a person may not be right for them. Low serotonin levels are the silent culprit. According to Professor Richard Schwartz from Harvard Medical School, after one to two years, serotonin levels normalize and the obsession eventually fades, but the feeling of deep love usually remains.
Oxytocin and Feelings of Trust
After serotonin levels stabilize, another hormone called oxytocin plays a huge role in making individuals feel more secure and comforted in their relationships. Oxytocin is associated with improving immune function and facilitating strong social connections. This hormone can help foster feelings of trust, cooperation and kindness in relationships. As a result, individuals experience health benefits such as decreased stroke risk, fewer heart attacks, less anxiety and depression, higher survival rates from cancer and longer life expectancies. According to Schwartz, married couples or individuals in healthy long-term mature relationships reap the benefits of increased oxytocin levels the most.
Testosterone and Human Behavior
Testosterone is another hormone that fluctuates during the first year of dating, however its presence may be the opposite of what most people would expect. Surprisingly, testosterone levels are typically higher in females than in males. Scientists suggest that the fluctuation in testosterone levels may be due to behavioral reasons which are currently not well understood. After 12-24 months testosterone levels stabilize to normal levels for both males and females.
The physical effects of love are vast and influence human behaviors and health in relationships more than most individuals realize. By having a better perception of the physiological impact of love on the human body, it is easier to develop a deeper understanding of why people act and feel the way they do in new and growing romantic relationships. This insight into human behavior and relationships provides an individual with the necessary tools for knowing how to navigate the stages of a new relationship.
Understanding the physical effects of love along with the emotional journey of new emotions can help in the preparation and navigation of a new relationship. Hormonal responses the body experiences demonstrate a complex design of how humans respond to new and growing love – and it’s already built in. It’s reassuring to know being “crazy in love” may actually have a real meaning beyond the typical suggestion of being fanatically infatuated with an individual.