A Crash Course in The Chemistry of Love and How Nutrition Impacts Human Connection
By Libby Hill, RDN, LDN
Whether you’re in the dating game, in a relationship, or loving the single life and wanting to build other meaningful relationships, nutrition should be on your list of priorities! Sadly, proper nutrition can’t save you from boilerplate pickup lines on your favorite dating app, but it can help support meaningful connections when they come about.
A Crash Course in the Chemistry of Love
From the first butterflies to the comfort of snuggling on the couch, our experience of love is dictated by chemical reactions. A hormone called norepinephrine controls the trademark feeling of butterflies, excitement, and “can’t eat, can’t sleep” new love. Physical and emotional attraction is controlled by dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the pleasure and reward region of our brain. The hormone, oxytocin, is responsible for bonding, attachment, and feelings of peace and comfort in a long-term relationship. Last but not least, lust and physical intimacy is controlled by the hormones testosterone and estrogen.
While personal experience and preferences determine what kind of person or relationship someone is attracted to, these chemical reactions let us know when someone who meets those preferences has walked in the room and helps to maintain attachment and interest throughout the course of a relationship.
Why Dietary Adequacy is Sexy
I know what you’re thinking… a blog about nutrition and love; cue the conversation about aphrodisiacs, right? Guess again! Foods termed ‘aphrodisiacs’ usually have properties that either increase blood flow or contain high levels of vitamins and minerals with deficiency symptoms that can limit sexual function/lust hormone production. But before you spring for the oysters and chocolate covered strawberries, you should take a critical look at your overall diet.
When a body is in a malnourished state, like on a crash diet, period of fasting, restrictive eating, or over-exercise, a few relevant things happen: first, mood, energy, and mental clarity levels dip in response to inadequate blood glucose. Then, we’re biologically hardwired to start thinking obsessively about food in an attempt to address our hunger. After an extended period of time, our body’s reserves of energy or necessary building blocks like protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals, get diverted away from making the neurotransmitters responsible for warm fuzzy feelings and put toward basic survival needs. In short, your body is more concerned with keeping your organs running than it is finding or experiencing love, so without proper nutrition you may end up in ‘hangry’ company and more focused on the menu than on your date.
Furthermore, your body can’t tell the difference between physical and emotional stress, so it can’t explain to you if it’s stressed from being underfed, if it’s stressed from a negative social interaction, or both. This means you could misinterpret hunger for a bad connection and miss out on something positive or miss red flags about an initial encounter because you were already feeling off. Staying nourished allows you to get a real read on the level of emotional attraction present and make a clear-headed decision about your interest and desires.
How to Make Love (Hormones)
In order to make the neurotransmitters and hormones associated with love, you body needs the precursors, or building blocks, including protein, vitamins, and minerals. Complete proteins, which by definition provide all possible building blocks, include meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, quinoa, and soy. If you don’t eat animal products, pairing complementary foods like nuts or beans/legumes with whole grains will also cover your bases. Eating a variety of colors and types of produce, along with these protein-rich foods, is the best bet for covering your bases on vitamins and minerals with minimal thought investment.
Even if we have all the building blocks present in our diet, we still need enough energy to do the job—that means getting adequate calories in the day and regular s of carbohydrates for efficient energy production.
When Food is Love
The phrase, “The key to a person’s heart is through the stomach,” may have some validity. We know adequate nourishment put us in the right headspace to engage with others and produce the hormones and neurotransmitters we need to find a connection, but food experiences themselves can be valuable. A 2014 chimpanzee study by Wittig et al.  showed the act of preparing food together or sharing a meal actually results in higher levels of oxytocin release. That implies making a meal together, taking a cooking class, or going on a dinner date may promote deeper connection and social bonding.
Science aside, food can be an easy introductory topic of conversation, a way to introduce your culture to a friend or loved one, or an opportunity to explore your city. On the flip side, that means when your relationship with food is rocky, it can limit the ways you’re able to engage and share experiences with someone you care about.
If you struggle with food or body image issues that interfere with your relationships, this Valentine’s Day is a great opportunity to focus on the most important relationship in your life – the one you have with yourself!
Seeking help from an eating disorder informed registered dietitian or therapist can start the process of healing that relationship and make room for friendship, romance, and love.
Works Cited: Wittig, Roman M et al. “Food sharing is linked to urinary oxytocin levels and bonding in related and unrelated wild chimpanzees.” Proceedings. Biological sciencesvol. 281,1778 20133096. 15 Jan. 2014, doi:10.1098/rspb.2013.3096
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