Sunday, November 27, 2022

Oxytocin, the hormone of holiday romances and heartaches

Take a virgin sheep. Put her in a herd. She only cares about herself. You inject her with an oxytocin syringe, so she keeps rounding up the lambs to protect them. This miracle is due to a hormone, oxytocin, which brain specialists also call the attachment hormone. It is especially secreted at the time of childbirth, in particular by the fetus, which, by this mechanism, warns that it wishes to come out: it is the child who triggers childbirth and not a sort of effect of calendar or a standard duration. Secretion continues throughout lactation.

Oxytocin and dopamine, the two stars of the brain

We could deduce from this that the woman is “chemically” attached to her baby, unlike the father, who does not have the same secretory capacities, thus explaining the differences between the “biological” motivation of the two parents. The excuse is imperfect, because the man has his own production of oxytocin, certainly less important than the woman, but sufficient to understand the phenomenon of the exceptional duration of certain couples. Do not look for the secret of the oak wedding anniversary (80 years of marriage) elsewhere than in the regular production of this hormone, which is not the result of any sexual stimulation, but of the tenderness of caresses. Oxytocin and dopamine, chemical messengers of the desire for sex, money and power, are the two stars of our brain.

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But surprising hormones, there are many others… Like endorphins, substances very close to morphine which reduce the pain of athletes when the activity exceeds 60 minutes, or the one which supplies the brain with cannabis… man is a veritable clandestine laboratory activated by the reward circuit. The pleasant or unpleasant effects of love are almost all controlled by hormones produced by a gland, the hypothalamus, which is nicknamed the “cave of pleasures”. The knowledge of our internal chemistry is progressing by leaps and bounds, thanks to MRIs which make it possible to follow live the areas of the brain which are activated. The game of seduction, desire, jealousy, kissing, love at first sight, even orgasm, have their precise biochemical explanation, resulting from the secretion of our 100 billion neurons. Neurotransmitters that bring messages to the receptors, real keys to pleasure, distributed over the entire surface of our brain.

Love modifies our organism

It now remains, at the risk of playing the sorcerer’s apprentice, to help nature a little, by correcting the unsatisfactory dosages of the three stages that chemistry describes to us: successful encounter, passion and lasting attachment.

Twenty years of research full of figures, dosages and verifications in animals that put a serious kick in the anthill of psychiatric hypotheses sometimes hazy and often unverified.

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However, should psychiatrists systematically deal with major heartaches?

Techniques for exploring the brain, in particular MRI which makes it possible to “see” emotions on a screen, have made it possible to establish that love, the one we make but also the one we feel, biologically modifies our organism: when we love, we produce euphoric substances – like when we run over long distances – which activate the natural circuit of pleasure and make us want to love again and feel even more pleasure. And it is this doping of the natural mechanics of pleasure which, in the state of love as in drug addiction, can make you “addicted”: the lack can then be experienced as unbearable. The passion then turns into “addiction”, the term consecrated to express the state of dependence.

Love can therefore dope us but also, in the same way as a toxic substance, be a factor of suffering, even depression.

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