Neuroscience and Love Explained
Wendy Yoder Ph.D.
The desire to fall in love is a universal characteristic. Unfortunately, myriad obstacles frequently hinder or otherwise disrupt the underlying neurochemical pathways necessary for emotional intimacy and romantic attachment. As a consequence, adverse physiological and psychological symptoms frequently manifest, resulting in progressive, often debilitating mental health issues that subjugate amorous feelings. This inability to experience passion, warmth and excitement not only prevents the development of meaningful relationships, but the inability to experience love often becomes a circular obstacle in itself.
Although stress is unlikely to be the sole driving factor, it can increase vulnerability to maladaptive psychological disorders, resulting in side effects such as diminished pleasure, enjoyment and the need for developing interpersonal connections. Further, these disruptive behaviors are often accompanied by cognitive impairments and alterations in perceptual processing. Though many studies have established an important link between emotional intimacy and anxiety, treatment options have been limited due to several key drawbacks. Despite increasing prevalence, pharmacological agents have primarily addressed physiological symptoms, often targeting isolated transmitters, while neglecting the more abstract, psychological components.
Accordingly, though individual differences in emotional sensitivity and perceptual behavior exist, numerous compounds have been indicated to help modify neurotransmitter-associated alterations, enhance emotional well-being and restore feelings of romantic intimacy. Research indicates Phenibut (beta-phenyl-gamma-aminobutyric acid HCl) may be one such chemical constituent. Initially prescribed in Russia as a psychopharmacological agent for clinical depression, Phenibut has gained popularity for its nootropic and anxiolytic effects (Ziablintseva & Pavlova, 2009). The primary mechanism of action occurs at GABA(B) receptors (similar to Baclofen and alcohol), resulting in decreased tension and improved sleep quality. GABA has been well-established neuropathologically, and there is substantial evidence to suggest gabaergic inhibition underlies the progression of anxiety symptoms.
Despite being chiefly recognized as a GABA(B) antagonist, Phenibut also stimulates dopamine receptors, contributing to both its anti-depressant and nootropic effects. Dopaminergic neurons play a critical role in boosting mood; deficiencies result in maladaptive cognitive alterations, such as decreased attention and motivation.
In line with this research, certain nootropics are widely gaining acceptance for not only promoting cognitive enhancement but also for advancing feelings of emotional well-being. Specifically, aniracetam, a synthetic derivative of one of the earliest nootropics, piracetam, has been shown to increase situational awareness (Harvey & Shahid, 2012) and decrease levels of anxiety (Lugo, 2014). Long-term use has also been associated with improved perceptual processing and learning-induced neuroplasticity.
As a compliment to synthetic nootropic compounds, numerous herbal supplements have similarly been shown to enhance mood and minimize anxiety. Many of these plant-derived compounds possess physicochemical properties that display structural patterns of activation at the neuronal level, similar to those found in pharmacological agents.
For instance, turmeric has been rigorously studied for its anxiolytic and antidepressant effects (Ceremuga et al., 2017). Historically used as a therapeutic substance in Ayurvedic medicine, it is now administered for anxiety-related disorders and has been used as treatment in numerous placebo-controlled clinical trials. Regarded as a potent phytochemical, it promotes neuroprotective effects by ameliorating nervous system injury and reducing oxidative damage caused from chronic inflammation. Moreover, curcumin (the primary active ingredient) is commonly used for its neurocognitive and analgesic properties to enhance relaxation and adaptive coping. Frequently included in dietary supplements, it is one of the most well-regarded medicinal herbs used in psychiatriatric practice.
Likewise, numerous botanicals have been used as alternative treatments for psychological disorders. For instance, clinical studies indicate Mucuna pruriens provides a natural source for increasing the bioavailability of Levodopa, resulting in elevated dopamine production. Pharmacotherapy studies suggest it is a potent aprodiastic shown to enhance sexual function and improve fertility while reducing hypertension and oxidative damage (Sachan et al., 2015; Deokar et al., 2016).
Cordyceps sinensis, a traditional medicinal mushroom, has similarly gained increasing attention as a contemporary treatment approach for depression and is routinely used in phytotherapeutic preparations as a tonic for sexual and reproductive dysfunctions (Chen et al., 2008). Other examples include Beta Caryophyllene (Galdino et al., 2012; Bahi et al., 2014; Leonti & Casu, 2018) and Kava (Sarris and Kavanagh, 2009; Sarris et al., 2013, both of which markedly improve anxiety symptoms, promote immune regulation and reduce systemic inflammation associated with depression.
An additional key factor significantly impacting cognition, perception and mood is vitamin deficiency. Namely, problems absorbing and processing certain vitamins can lead to serious side effects. B vitamins are particularly essential for supporting psychological health, decreasing fatigue, increasing alertness and maintaining overall homeostasis in the body (Kennedy et al., 2010). Over time, insufficient B vitamin levels cause symptoms of depression and anxiety to develop and/or worsen. Notably, B6 (pyridoxine) and B12 (cobalamin) contain properties crucial for normal nerve cell function (including DNA synthesis and metabolism). When these mechanisms are compromised, neurological symptoms inevitably develop.
Adaptogens are another well known group of compounds shown to considerably improve neural and perceptual processing. There is now considerable evidence that prolonged exposure to stressful stimuli can have profound physiological and psychological effects, including cognitive deficits, hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli and overactive adrenal responses. Collectively, these behavioral reactions frequently manifest as mental health disorders, ranging from burdensome to severely debilitating. As a potential intervention strategy, numerous studies have explored the role of adaptogens in response to stress. Evidence suggests these substances modulate molecular signaling pathways crucial for combating inflammation, anxiety-induced fatigue, cognitive impairments and behavioral disorders.
Many herbal supplements and phytochemical extracts fall into this category, but ashwagandha (Cooley et al., 2009; Pratte et al., 2014) and rhodiola rosea (Khanum et al., 2006; Bystritsky et al., 2008) are generally the most widely recognized in clinical practice. These compounds possess physicochemical properties essential for normalizing maladaptive responses to stress by lowering cortisol, balancing hormones and providing neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory benefits. Notably, many of these effects overlap with nootropics, suggesting a close interrelationship between the two.
Similarly, hormonal balance is another key factor responsible for maintaining emotional well-being. It is now widely recognized that hormones markedly influence mood and are integral for interneuronal communication between cells. In accordance with this notion, dysfunctions in hormone regulation modify responses to stressful stimuli by disrupting glucose metabolism and increasing glucocorticoid reactivity.
While these declines may, to some degree, reflect normal age-associated changes, homeostasis can often be restored with supplements shown to stimulate the neuroendocrine system. Among these, one of the most well known compounds is Maca. Also considered an adaptogen, Maca has traditionally been used in herbal preparations and nutriceuticals to treat psychological symptoms of sexual dysfunction, such as infertility and difficulties with arousal. Additional therapeutic effects include reducing blood pressure, restoring thyroid imbalances and improving symptoms of depression (West & Krychman, 2015). Corresponding results have been obtained with zinc supplementation (Cope & Levenson, 2010; Sawada & Kokoi, 2010), red panax ginseng extract (Oh et al., 2010; Shergis et al., 2012), epimedium (horny goat weed) formulations (Cui et al., 2015) and DHEA (Maggi et al., 2013; Zhou et al., 2015).
Taken together, these synchronous compounds represent rich opportunities for research into neurobiological circuitry, as well as the integrative relationship between behavior and the perceptual sensations associated with love. As such, the ability to recognize the pathophysiological signatures of diverse chemical constituents is essential for understanding how overlapping neural networks and molecular pathways interact to produce romantic feelings. Although certain transmitters and signaling molecules have been widely recognized as promising therapeutic targets, it is crucial to recognize that there is no single, originating locus responsible for promoting intimacy and emotional well-being.
As research into the neural and biological basis of love and relationships continues to expand, our understanding of the neurophysiological and psychological mechanisms also evolves. It is now evident that emotional, cognitive and perceptual processes collectively influence feelings of passion, warmth and euphoria. Thus, it is unlikely that a single substance or isolated therapeutic target will produce a long-standing, demonstrative impact. Rather, the aforementioned studies reflect an interconnected system and emphasize the need to treat romantic attachment as a holistic process.
Importantly, with respect to the neural mechanisms underlying hormonal responses, it is crucial to recognize that the aforementioned compounds are not gender specific. Although certain compounds specifically target estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, the specific substances described do not appear to differentially affect males and females. Rather, the primary objective is to regulate hormones overall and prioritize chemicals that simultaneously decrease anxiety and depression while increasing relaxation, emotional satisfaction and a desire to restore sensuality and romantic fervor.
Nevertheless, it is crucial to recognize that there may be certain gender-specific limitations. Specifically, these compounds may not be ideal for individuals taking synthetic hormones (particularly birth control). Further studies will be necessary before the potential impact of such diverse hormonal substances can be fully evaluated. As such, it is advisable to consult a physician.
Beyond the potential hormonal implications, the use of certain medications and herbal supplements should also be discussed with a doctor. As a precaution, individuals taking MAO inhibitors (generally in the form of antidepressants) need to discuss possible interactions with a psychiatrist and/or medical professional.
Furthermore, many of the components (such as Phenibut) cannot be combined with herbal or other medicinal products that may increase drowsiness. Specifically, alcohol adversely interacts with several of the compounds described and can cause blackouts when combined with wine, beer or liquor. Many of the chemical constituents in this formula rely on the Gabaergic system to reduce anxiety and stress. It is strongly recommended not to use this formula in conjunction with sedatives (or herbal supplements that increase sleepiness). In addition, those taking blood thinners and/or heart medications should consult a physician.
Finally, this is not intended as a daily supplement. To achieve optimal efficacy, these supplements should be taken for no longer than three consecutive days. The substances described generally require ~30-60 minutes for maximum absorption (on an empty stomach). If taken with food, an additional hour may be required.
It is crucial to recognize that the components in this product cannot guarantee the manifestation of romantic feelings. Rather, the objective is to aid people in learning how to minimize certain anxiety and depressive symptoms that prevent them from recognizing and appreciating amorous feelings. As such, this formula is intended to assist with underlying physiological and psychological mechanisms that impede romantic aims and inadvertently impede romantic intimacy.
In summary, the various compounds and nutrients described above may be successfully combined to induce a synergistic effect. The objective is to improve emotional intimacy by restoring many of the neurochemical imbalances responsible for generating the psychological experience of love.