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Addicted to love? Maybe it’s just the oxytocin.

12 Nov 2020 9:02 AM | Anonymous

They say you know you're in love when all the songs suddenly make sense. Harmonious chemistry certainly plays a part.

From Robert Palmer's soulful rock proclamation, "Addicted to Love," to Ke$ha's late 2000s club hit, "Your love is my drug," for decades we've heard songwriters proclaim the prescriptive power of being in love. So just what is in love potion #9? And more importantly, with 45 per cent of Millennials making the conscious decision to stay single and focus on critical milestones like finding a career or obtaining a degree, can we replicate that head over heelssensation without a partner?

Despite the ability to purchase a robot companion, a threat I've made to parents when they mention I've yet to bring a man home for Thanksgiving, we are miles away from encapsulating the high of romance into a device or an admissible drug. 

That isn't to say we haven't uncovered ways to modulate neural pathways associated with that lovin’ feeling. In fact, a medication most women take as frequently as their daily vitamins has proven to do just this. 

Since their introduction in the 1960s, hormonal contraceptives have been used by more than 500 million women alive today. The pill works by tricking a woman's body into thinking it’s pregnant by modulating levels of the natural female hormones estrogen and progesterone. However, despite their widespread use, little research has been done to fully understand the effect of administrating what are essentially reproductive hormones on the female brain. 

Enter Michael Winterdahl, an Associate Professor in Neuroimaging at Aarhus University in Denmark and a bit of a love doctor himself. Winterdahl sought to determine if birth control could affect blood oxytocin levels in women on the pill. His study results illustrate that birth control can increase oxytocin levels in women regardless of their relationship status.

So what's so special about oxytocin? It’s commonly referred to as the love hormone, a neurochemical that plays an indispensable role in helping us form bonds, including with romantic partners. Could be the key to a real love potion #9? 

"It's the cuddle hormone; it’s the love hormone. It should be good." Winterdahl explains, "However, oxytocin should be released dynamically, as a burst." 

This means that having this system hijacked by the birth control pill could also hijack how women form relationships. 

Oxytocin is tied to learning circuits in our brains. When boy meets girl, they each receive a burst of the neurochemical that signals to them that this one may be worth pursuing. Winterdahl says the pill might change this feeling for women. Much like the effect of opioids, after receiving that first rush, or a sustained dosage, it will take more and more of the drug to replicate that feeling. 

"If you're always high (on oxytocin), then the peak is just a small wave on this big ocean, so maybe you won't feel the buzz of being with the right person," he says.

What does this mean for women on the pill? Well, the results aren't entirely clear. Women on oral contraception (and often for reasons beyond contraception), meet partners, fall in love, and live happily ever after. Studies show that women on the pill tend to choose a different variety of mates than their freecycling peers. 

Winterdahl hypothesizes this could come down to how the pill functions by tricking the female into thinking she's pregnant. This causes them to look for comfort and security in a mate versus taking more risks and seeking out men who have more immune systems differences from themselves— making the steamy bad boys of the world just a little less appealing. 

Another striking correlation was validated by Winterdahl's study, underlining that women on the pill do not exhibit a regular stress response and this can have a bearing on their dating behaviour. 

Winterdahl explains that stress hormones like cortisol can drive us to excel in various scenarios by imparting a keen sense of alertness in new situations. Within the context of dating, the hormone helps us detect danger and the micro-cues (vocal inflection, body language, etc.), a potential date is signaling to us. 

Without this stress response and an oxytocin surge, women are more likely to settle for the safe mate. Likely a nice accountant, engineer, banker – someone pragmatic who might not elicit butterflies, but seemingly can't be harmful. 

So, Mom, Dad, no need to worry. Robots likely won’t make an appearance this Thanksgiving. But don’t complain if all my date wants to talk about is balanced spreadsheets or mass transfer. 

By: Miranda Stahn

A prairie girl at heart, Miranda completed both her Bachelor's and Master's of Science at the University of Alberta. Her thesis research focused on classifying new bacterial viruses for a unique class of bacteria known as Methanotrophs - named for their ability to survive off of unusual carbon compounds such as methane. Outside of her studies, Miranda has always been passionate about science communications and outreach. Since undergrad, she has been involved in several outreach initiatives run through well-known programs such as the Telus World of Science Edmonton (TWOSE), the University of Alberta's DiscoverE, WISEST (Women in Scholarship Engineering Science and Technology), and Science Slam Canada. Miranda is committed to making science accessible to everyone and firmly believes that effective and entertaining science writing is key to helping the public disseminate truth from fiction. For more details, please check out her LinkedIn:


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