A Chemical Cocktail for Love

Love has been compared to drugs so many times, so I won’t invent a new analogy (though I do think Beyonce does it best with her single “Drunk in Love”). There is, however, some truth to this oft-used allusion: Scientists have found that there is a predictable biochemical reaction to falling in love with someone. With the Valentine’s Day season approaching, it seemed only fitting to write about it.

It all starts with the neurotransmitter dopamine. A neurotransmitter is a chemical produced in our brains — depending on where it’s present in the brain, it may have different effects. You’ve probably heard of this chemical before; it’s actually quite well known for the role it plays in addictions. Though dopamine has a number of important functions in bodies, the one involved in love — and other addictions — is called the mesolimbic pathway. This particular pathway is the reward pathway; when you bite into a delicious piece of cake or win at a slot machine, dopamine surges through your brain. The same thing happens when you first fall in love or experience lust — whatever you want to call it.

Dopamine is powerful stuff. A few years ago, biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher scanned several individuals’ brains while they were looking at pictures of their sweethearts. She found that of the many different regions of the brain that lit up, one of them was the same region that becomes activated by a cocaine rush.

But without norepinephrine, dopamine is useless.

Norepinephrine is another neurotransmitter; it provides us with focus, attention and directs the general euphoria provided by dopamine. Dopamine could have you in a cheerful mood, but when you see that special someone at a party and he or she immediately takes all your attention, that’s norepinephrine at work. In an interview on Radiolab, science reporter Neely Tucker from The Washington Post equated this neurotransmitter to physical passion and infatuation: It’s the drive that makes us literally want to cross that one person off your to-do list.

So while this is, in fact, the neurotransmitter that makes your eyes dilate and your pulse increase, if you’re like me it also means your palms get sweaty and you lose the ability to form complete, coherent sentences.

But have no fear! If you’re able to make it through those first awkward conversations to those first few dates (or however you get close to your significant other), there’s a chance the rushes of dopamine and norepinephrine will wear off into something more permanent: oxytocin.

Oxytocin is the attachment hormone, and in terms of romantic love, oxytocin is the difference between a fling and a long-term relationship. After you spend a lot of time with a partner, the spark becomes less exciting. And not because your significant other is boring; your relationship just isn’t new anymore. Some couples are dependent on the dopamine and norepinephrine to keep them going; when there’s no more left, they go their separate ways and look to start the chemical trip all over again. And that’s fine — assuming you can find someone else who pleases you, you’re in for another great high.

But for others, depleting levels of these first two neurotransmitters leads to the creation of a relationship that generates oxytocin. Oxytocin doesn’t have the same highs, but it provides the feeling of contentment and companionship associated with life partners. It’s a much more emotionally stable feeling, and it can come anywhere between six months and a year after seeing someone.

What we call love requires all three of these chemicals, though; one is not better than the others in any biological sense. I suppose it’s not very romantic to think of love as just another set of chemical reactions. It implies that when you swoon when your significant other remembered your favorite flowers or took you on a picnic or to that concert you’ve always wanted, it was all just some chemicals at play.

But there are two ways of making this fact hopeful: First, it takes some of the pressure off to find “the one.” Who knows how many people will trigger those chemicals for you? Second, it helps put breakups into context: We’re just going through a little withdrawal, but ultimately we’re going to be okay.

Happy Valentine’s Day. May your Feb. 14 be filled with all the neurotransmitters you deserve, and then some.

Originally printed in The Hoya

Chocolate: A Chemical Addiction

They say that admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery, right? In that case, I confess: I am addicted to chocolate.

Granted, if Cadbury and Hershey’s and all the other various candy bar companies went bankrupt tomorrow, I could still physically survive. But there’s something about a chocolate craving that’s just stronger than other foods for me. Fortunately, chemistry proves that a nagging sweet tooth isn’t entirely to blame for my habit: Chocolate’s composition gives it a natural hook for suckers like myself.

Chocolate has been around for ages. Though its first official appearance in history textbooks is in 16th-centuryEurope, a study in 2002 used liquid chromatography to find traces of cocoa residue on Mayan ceramic pots that date back to 600 B.C. When it was finally commercialized in 1847 in England, chocolate had a long-standing reputation as a luxury good. The Cadbury brothers soon followed suit, and now we’ve got a culture rich with chocolate, from mochas to chocolate-covered strawberries.

There’s a reason for chocolate’s centuries of popularity: a perfect blend of chemical properties that keeps us coming back for more. I’m sure you’ve noticed the smooth, creamy taste of a Hershey’s bar, but did you know that this property results from its high saturated fat? Cocoa butter contains large amounts of stearate, which is an 18-carbon long fatty acid chain. It gives chocolate a slightly waxy, solid texture at room temperature. However, when you put a piece of chocolate in your mouth, your body’s temperature breaks the bonds that make chocolate a solid, and it literally melts in your mouth into heavenly goodness. This is also why you should never leave a chocolate bar in your car on a warm summer day.

There’s also the rumor that chocolate serves as an aphrodisiac. True, it does contain tryptophan, an amino acid we typically associate with Thanksgiving turkey. But certain types of unsweetened baking chocolate actually contain higher amounts of tryptophan-to-protein ratios than everyone’s favorite gobbling poultry. Rather than making us tired, tryptophan’s primary function is to increase serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of ecstasy. Additionally, chocolate containsphenylethylalanine, which is the chemical associated with the rush of falling in love. Of course, within chocolate, the levels of these chemicals are relatively low, so there is some debate over whether or not chocolate can actually set the mood. But from my experience, chocolate is extremely comparable to love, so I’m not all that surprised.

As if a food substitute for love weren’t enough, there are still the stimulant aspects of chocolate to consider. One of chocolate’s most tantalizing components is theobromine. This mild stimulant is only one methyl group different from caffeine — enough to imitate the effects of the famed stimulant — and is a basic plant alkaloid. I’m no botanist, but I do know that other plant-based alkaloids include morphine from poppy seed, cocaine, nicotine and, of course, caffeine itself. And theobromine doesn’t just wake you up — it also decreases your stress levels. Got a huge paper to write between now and midnight? Try skipping the java and hit up the M&Ms instead.

Of course, in large quantities, theobromine has negative effects. In adults who take in more than 50 to 100 grams of cocoa a day, side effects include anxiety, sweating, trembling and even severe headaches. Sometimes, this means hospitalization for the delicate among us, particularly old people. And for smaller mammals like dogs, the effect can be fatal — this is why chocolate and dogs don’t mix.

The word addiction typically brings to mind serious consequences, like those of alcoholism or smoking. That’s why I’m not entirely comfortable with the fact that chocolate — even in all its milky goodness — has some of these addictive qualities. I’m uncomfortable depending on any one substance just to get through the day. I justify my daily indulgence by the relative tameness of the the habit-forming compounds in chocolate. But even writing that makes me wonder if this is just my love for theobromine and phenylethylalanine talking.

And while I certainly hope no developments link chocolate to severe negative health effects, I’d have to say that death by chocolate would be a pretty good way to go.

Originally published on The Hoya.