There's a scientific explanation for butterflies in your stomach.

By Jenn Sinrich
April 10, 2019
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Research shows that your brain undergoes a chemical change when you fall in love. Crazy, right? While it might sound far-fetched, it's entirely true. "MRI scans have documented that the pleasure center of the brain (the nucleus accumbens) lights up when we fall in love," explains Laura F. Dabney, M.D., a relationship psychiatrist. The pro also notes that falling in love involves many stages. "The first part of falling in love is call the 'lust phase,' and it's all driven by our hormonal changes to our sexual organs which leads to desire. Then there's the 'attraction phase,' which involves an increase of dopamine in your brain that causes euphoria along with an increase of adrenaline and norepinephrine, which causes the excitement, the racing heart, restlessness and distractibility or 'dazed' reaction." The last phase, called the "attachment phase," she explains, is when the body develops a tolerance to the chemicals causing pleasure. "Endorphins and hormones vasopressin and oxytocin also flood the body during this phase creating an overall sense of well-being and security which can be the foundation of a lasting relationship," she says.

In other words, all of that fluttering and those stomach butterflies you felt were most certainly not in your imagination. There are actual chemical and radiographic changes happening inside your body! When we're in love, we feel happier on a chemical level thanks to an increase of dopamine, otherwise known as the "feel-good chemical" in the brain. "When people fall in love, their dopamine level spikes creating feelings of happiness and pleasure," says Shelley Sommerfeldt, Psy.D., clinical psychologist who specializes in relationships. "Due to these euphoric dopamine rushes, we then feel a strong desire to continue these positive feelings and want to be with our love interest more and more."

You know that "attached" feeling that starts to creep in when you think you might be falling in love? Dr. Sommerfeldt says that's a direct result of an increase in our levels of oxytocin, also known as the "love hormone," in the brain. "Levels are particularly increased through physical contact like hugging, kissing, or sex, which tend to be higher in the initial stages of the relationship creating even more increases in desire and attraction," she says. "Oxytocin can deepen feelings of attachment toward your partner and provide you a feeling of safety, calmness, and security." Beyond its role in romance, she explains that oxytocin plays a role in social bonding, nurturing, as well as the maternal instinct as it is released during childbirth and while breastfeeding and through skin to skin contact. "This is why it is often not only referred to as the 'love hormone,' but also the 'attachment or bonding hormone,'" she says.

Naturally, when we're in the presence of someone we're sexually attracted to-let alone in love with-our sex hormones change dramatically. In women, testosterone rates increase, creating an increase of sexual desire. The exact opposite happens to men, ironically, according to Dr. Sommerfeldt. They often have lower testosterone levels in the initial stages, which can lead to increased emotional connection and being more receptive. While being in love increases most of our hormone levels, it tends to lower our levels of serotonin, a chemical that has also been found in individuals who engage in obsessive compulsive behaviors. "This lower serotonin level and link to obsessive compulsive behaviors explains why we tend to obsess, overanalyze, and intensely focus on our new love during the initial stages in a relationship," says Dr. Sommerfeldt. "This reaction increases our emotional dependency, infatuation, and craving to be with the other person."

When you're in love you may also notice that you feel less pain-everything happening to you that would normally disrupt you physically, mentally, and emotionally, now seems less important. This is not your imagination. "Love activates the same neural receptors in the brain as many pain relieving medications so we therefore experience less aches and pains when we are in love," says Dr. Sommerfeldt. "We also have less perceived pain due to the influx of neurochemicals, such as dopamine and oxytocin, which produce feelings of pleasure and euphoria, making us less likely to focus on or feel any pain."

This should should come as no surprise to anyone who's been in love before, but being in this mental state of mind can actually become something of an addiction, leading to cravings and obsessive thoughts and the desire to spend every moment with your partner. "Neuroscientific research has shown that love quite literally is like a drug: Falling in love activates the same system in the brain as cocaine addiction," says Mark Borg, Ph.D., relationship expert and co-author of Relationship Sanity.

Similar to addiction, Dr. Sommerfeldt explains that a stress response, known as "fight or flight," is also common among those in love. "Our cortisol levels also increase when we are falling in love, which can create that nervous feeling in the pit of your stomach or 'butterflies,' that can impact your concentration and your ability to sleep, just as with high levels of stress," she says. "We are basically experiencing the same stress response in our bodies, but the source happens to be a positive one when it comes to love and we have a more favorable experience as a result."

All in all, the process of falling in love is intricate-involving both the body and the mind. So, the next time your friend says you're being dramatic when you talk about those butterflies in your stomach and that feel-good high you get around your significant other, you have scientific evidence to back them up!


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