Alt-Health: Early Romance and You

Being swept into the throes of first love is like hurling through the rapids — you are both thrilled and terrified at the same time. It’s no wonder that in modern song, love is often compared to the rush of a drug. Funny thing is, love really does act like a drug in your body. It produces a complex symphony of neurotransmitters and chemicals that alter your mood, your blood pressure and your hormones. The loss of love can literally affect your heart … but love also can be a powerful healer.

Studies at Stanford University School of Medicine made headlines in 2010 when a team of scientists discovered that for subjects feeling the heady effects of passion, love could be an analgesic with amazingly effective pain relief, similar to prescription painkillers or illicit drugs.

Their study involved couples who were in the first nine months of a romantic relationship. Researchers intentionally focused on the early phase of love. According to Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, associate professor of anesthesia and senior author of the study, “We specifically were not looking for longer-lasting, more mature phases of the relationship. We wanted subjects who were feeling euphoric, energetic, obsessively thinking about their beloved, craving their presence.” In other words, those who were head over heels.

It turns out that the “high” of intense passionate feelings activates very deep, primitive brain structures that control dopamine, a primary neurotransmitter that influences mood, reward and motivation. Love stimulates cells in the reward center of the brain – the same area that is triggered by cocaine. It proved highly effective in blocking pain.

But another question occurred to researchers: Could passionate love, like cocaine, be addictive? It involves the same brain systems as dopamine-related addictions. Could your loved one be a stimulation you’ve come to crave, like crack? According to studies in 2010 conducted at both Rutgers and Syracuse Universities, the brain chemicals released when falling in love – dopamine, oxytocin, adrenaline and vasopressin – are identical to those released by addictive drugs. And, as with drugs, the more time you spend with your beloved, the more addicted you become.

Serotonin

Serotonin

For those with pre-existing psychopathic tendencies, this could get weird. But for most of us, love can have positive effects. That dopamine entering your system can trigger extremely goal-oriented behavior. Haven’t you noticed how eager new couples are to get married, create futures, build families or grow businesses together when they are in love?

So, what other effects does love have on the body? The increased blood flow to your brain releases adrenaline and norepinephrine into your system. This can cause sweaty palms and a racing heart. And those butterflies in your stomach? There’s some stress involved in the initial uncertainty of love, which can increase your output of cortisol and can, in turn, contract the blood vessels in your gut, producing a sensation akin to vertigo. Along with this roller coaster ride of emotions comes a sense of elation and focused attention; and when you stare into the eyes of your beloved, all of the tingling and nervousness stimulates the autonomic nervous system’s sympathetic branch, causing your pupils to dilate.

With all of these hyped-up chemicals running rampant, it’s no wonder that people in love can act a little bit nuts. At Rutgers University, researchers in the department of anthropology used MRI scans to observe the brains of smitten persons and discovered that the amygdala and frontal and prefrontal lobes demonstrated diminished activity. Those just happen to be the neurological regions associated with reason, judgement, learning from mistakes, delayed gratification and accountability. Could this explain the sheer number of times that Elizabeth Taylor was married?

And this brings us to the downside of every romance: the break-up. Your heart can literally feel as if it has been smashed and lies bleeding on the floor. But has anyone ever died of a broken heart? Well, according to the Mayo Clinic, in rare cases they actually have. Some serious complications can develop – disruption in heartbeat, a back-up of fluid into your lungs and even heart failure can occur. People who have neurological or seizure disorders, such as epilepsy, have a greater risk of broken heart syndrome. Those suffering from anxiety or depression are also at a higher risk. Women are far more likely than men to experience broken heart syndrome, and those over the age of 50 are even more susceptible. Fortunately, most broken hearts mend in time, with no long-lasting physical effects.

So, knowing all the pros and cons, is love worth it? Let’s be honest – do those who fall in love even care? Perhaps the best advice comes from Leo Tolstoy, in his sweeping novel of the human drama, War and Peace: “Seize the moment of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only real thing in the world; the rest is all nonsense.”

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