The Science of Love and Epigenetics
LOVE is such a broad term and includes romantic love, love in all types of relationships (family, friends, colleagues, even strangers) and love for self (also known as self-love).
Self-love is a challenge to most of us. We are so used to loving and accepting those around us and we tend to be very hard on ourselves. The ultimate key to improving our health and happiness is to develop and improve our self-talk and self-love, by truly accepting our flaws and giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt (as we so often do for our loved ones). Then there is romantic love…
Most of us have experienced being ‘in love’ along with all the ‘rollercoaster’ feelings associated with it. But what is romantic love actually?
Romantic love can be nerve-wracking, confusing and somewhat terrifying, but also exciting, pleasurable and uplifting. Love is a multidimensional, universal and complex phenomenon and induces many physiological changes in the human body.
Romantic love can be defined as a motivational state associated with feelings of attachment. It fulfils a need for commitment with one partner. Romantic love or falling ‘in love’ can be divided into three phases: Lust, romantic attraction and attachment.
During each phase different neurological and biochemical systems are at work. This means that many messenger molecules, such as hormones, play a role in love. These molecules give rise to different states, which could explain the rollercoaster-like feelings experienced when in love.
THE THREE PHASES OF ROMANTIC LOVE:
Lust (libido/ sex drive) is considered as a craving for sexual fulfilment and the gonadal hormones (androgens – like testosterone – and oestrogens) play a major role here. High testosterone levels are linked to increased sexual activity. Testosterone activity increases when in love and, interestingly, this hormone is elevated during ovulation (in women).
Male pheromones are known as androgens and female pheromones include oestrogens. Research shows that menstrual synchronisation between women who live together or near other women, occurs due to pheromones. Brain areas associated with sexuality are activated when heterosexual women and homosexual men smelled androgens and when homosexual women and heterosexual men smelled oestrogens. These findings did not occur when these individuals smelt the opposite pheromone. Therefore, pheromones are linked to sexual orientation and not gender.
Attraction (infatuation and passionate romantic love) is characterised by an increase in energy and focused attention on the positive aspects of the preferred partner. Feelings such as excitement, euphoria, loss of appetite, increased heart- and breathing rate, emotional dependency, sleeplessness, diarrhoea and obsessive thoughts can be experienced in this phase. These feelings can be experienced due to decreased levels of serotonin as well as increased levels of dopamine and noradrenaline.
Attachment includes increased oxytocin and vasopressin levels and are associated with social comfort, calmness, emotional union, decreased stress and security. Oxytocin is involved in all phases of love, but is most prominent in attachment. This hormone ensures feelings of trust, devotion and loyalty which are important for lasting relationships.
Oxytocin also plays a role in social, sexual and maternal behaviours. Interestingly, breast milk contains high levels of oxytocin, thus facilitating infant-mother attachment and bonding. Oxytocin is also involved in memory and behaviour. Vasopressin and oxytocin seem to increase in response to touch, caress and during intercourse. It is suggested that both these hormones will create a bond to keep the partners together when romantic attraction has faded away. Oxytocin also increases with practising self-love and connection with loved ones and even universal sense of love toward all.
The three phases of love are also associated with different behaviours and evolved to direct different aspects of reproduction. Lust evolved to encourage individuals to pursue sexual union with any member of the species. Attraction evolved to encourage individuals to select a specific partner. Attachment evolved to help individuals remain together long enough, by forming stable pair-bonds, to complete parental duties.
All three phases are essential aspects to our lives and sexual health. They can exist concurrently or independently in a relationship. For example an individual can be deeply attached to a partner, to whom he/she is also attracted and for whom a great deal of lust is felt. Alternatively, partners in long-term relationships have reported deep attachment to a long-term partner, while experiencing attraction to someone else, and feeling lust in response to verbal, visual, or mental stimuli unrelated to either partner.
Love is without a doubt a very intricate and complex phenomenon and anyone in love can vouch for that.
Epigenetics: ‘Epi’ means ‘above’ or ‘over’ the genetic information encoded in the DNA.
The emerging field of epigenetics is showing us that the cell membrane and its receptor binding sites supersede the genetic code and can restore cell function, even genetic in origin. The environment of the cell is ultimately responsible for the efficacy of cell function through selective binding to receptors.
The cell environment includes nutrients, oxygen, water, the vibrations of thoughts and emotions via the ‘molecules of emotion’ (peptides or informational substances released by the body in response to our emotions and thoughts).
Understanding this will help us know that we’re not helpless victims of our genetic heritage, but powerful beings who can take charge of our own health and wellbeing, by changing the environment of the cell, to ensure correct and effective messages enter through the cell membrane, right into the nucleus and DNA, where transcription for protein synthesis and, ultimately, all cell functions take place.
It is a decision to CHOOSE to change your inner and outer life, by improved health-enhancing behaviour. Genetics do play a part in illness by determining the physical weak links, that is, the physical system where it will manifest first by way of symptoms, such as ongoing increased blood sugar levels, high blood pressure, or weight gain. If you take care of the epigenetic environment, however, the genetic expression can – and will – be changed, or never even express.
Clearly that which we think and feel, could possibly make us sick or well, happy or unhappy.
Dr Candace Pert is a neuroscientist who did extensive research on the neuropeptides over many years. She was the first to call them the ‘molecules of emotions’. Dr Pert originally identified the opium receptor sites on cell membranes inside the brain, for endorphins, already in 1972. She realised that if morphine works as a pain killer, there had to be a similar molecule inside the human body, otherwise morphine wouldn’t have had a specific receptor to bind to for its pain-killing effect. Endorphin was this molecule!
The receptor sites for the peptide, endorphin, were first identified in the brain, hence the name neuropeptide. We now know that peptide receptors are found throughout the body and they’re now known as peptides or informational substances.
The complicated and complex communication network between cells, neurotransmitters, peptides, hormones, the immune system, blood and nerves, demands a remarkable orchestration of effective communication and integration of form and function, for the body-mind to work as one healthy, balanced and integrated whole. Now to focus on love…
LOVE AND EPIGENETICS
Love is health’ – short and sweet while extremely powerful at the same time! Love, in all its forms (including romantic love, friendship/family bonds, self-love etc), truly heals the body! This is not just an opinion, but a scientific fact.
As mentioned earlier, many hormones and peptides (or informational substances) are released in response to love (incl. endorphins, oxytocin, vasopressin, androgens, oestrogens and more). These love informational substances bind to specific receptors on the cells, throughout the body. Giving a literal meaning to ‘our cells feel like we do’. Therefore, love has a direct physical and beneficial effect on each cell and ultimately the entire body. Love literally makes our bodies function better. A cell that receives love will function much better, compared to a cell that receives fear/hate messages. Wouldn’t you agree?
Ultimately love is a wonderful mystery and the universal miracle of life, something to be grateful for.
Here is the thing, it remains our CHOICE to give and receive love to ourselves and others. So CHOOSE LOVE for your own health and happiness!
Anri van Rooyen is a holistic health counsellor and co-owner of Ariani Health Solutions and The Weight Control Clinic: www.DrArien.co.za