Sex & The Brain: Pleasure Hormones
As it turns out, our brain is one big bulbous druggie. Not the kind you find in dark alley ways when the sun goes down, nor the drugs that line the neon alleys of CVS.
Alas our crafty brain has it’s very own pharmacy of pleasure from which it releases its unique brands of intoxicating hormones according to each appropriate (or inappropriate) occasion.
Let us take a little looksee at the menu shall we?
Reward Flavored. Pleasure we get from the brain when we have sex is a delicately balanced cocktail. One of these not so delicate ingredients is that of dopamine, a neurotransmitter similar to the one that’s released when some of us play with mind-altering substances. This particular delicacy is associated with excitement, reward, compulsion, preservation, desire, pleasure, and is also often associated with addiction.
A lack or overload of dopamine can DRASTICALLY alter your life. A lack of it when we are born leads to mental retardation. It is also suggested that dopamine imbalances occur with people who struggle with ADHD, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression, bipolar disorders, binge eating, addiction, gambling, and schizophrenia.
Too much of this sweet ingredient can make you psychotic. Drugs, like cocaine and methamphetamine (aka adderall), dump loads of dopamine into your system and can result in euphoria, aggression, and intense sexual feelings alongside a long list of circus-like side effects you may not want surprising you.
Just the right amount of dopamine serves us as a motivator sprinkled with a healthy dose of competitiveness. According to psychology today, it’s linked to everything interesting about metabolism, evolution, and the brain.
“Oxytocin calms. A single rat injected with oxytocin has a calming effect on a cage full of anxious rats. (Agren, 2002)”
Cuddle Flavored. The second ingredient in this creative cupboard is the hormone that makes you want to snuggle up to your honey. Side effects also include feelings of security, trust, bonding, and warmth. This hormone offsets the negative, long-term perceptual and physical effects of dopamine withdrawal we experience for up to two weeks after having sex with someone (more on this later). It’s released during orgasm, breastfeeding, and childbirth. Though delicious, experiencing this release with someone in bed means that we might be blinded to whether or not they are compatible with us outside the bedroom. This sneaky beast makes us link whoever was involved with our last orgasm with a sensation as intimate as childrearing. No wonder we sometimes stay with butthole-Bruce-who’s-good-in-bed. Warnings should be as graphically detailed as they are on cigarette boxes in Taiwan (Google it).
Satiation flavored. Though commonly associated only with the maternal, prolactin has over 200 different uses in the male and female body. This hormone is typically released after orgasm and neutralizes the effects of dopamine. Some scientists believe this is what causes the refractory period, or the span of time after orgasm that someone can no longer become aroused. Because of this, elevated levels can lead to erectile dysfunction or sexual dysfunction in women. It also decreases the level of estrogen in women and testosterone in men.
Prolactin triggers a sensation of surrender or resignation, and can affect our mood or behavior. In a study where wild monkeys were caged, they experienced 7 months of heightened cortisol levels (stress hormone). After this time, they gradually experienced heightened prolactin levels instead, essentially resigning themselves to their fate and replacing stress with a feeling of resignation. This is similar to what happens in long term relationships if intimate oxytocin-producing bonding is missing (more on this in the conclusion).
Chocolate flavored. Last but not least, is our little friend PEA. It resembles amphetamine in what it does to our bodies, and is also present in cocoa (yes, in chocolate). We overproduce it when we are in love and underproduce it when we are not. This deficiency can lead to feelings of unhappiness and can be especially difficult for those struggling with manic depression.
So what does this all mean for us? This brainy cocktail of pleasure? It certainly sounds exhausting.
Any slight imbalance of one of these can leave us looking unfavorably at our long-term partners. This is due to our bodies need to replenish the dopamine depleted pre, post, and during orgasm. So, after that final brain flushing storm of pleasure chemicals through our brain, we can be left feeling depleted for up to two weeks. During the honey-moon phase, we are able to fend off this withdrawal because we are driven to have sex over and over again. But as time goes on, life gets in the way of time and effort. The body and mind may start associating the negative withdrawal to your partner when it’s really a biochemical need to refuel what was spent.
Does this mean we are all doomed to be sexually exhausted? Doomed to be hopping from honey-moon phase to honey-moon phase? Not at all. Studies have shown that this is when oxytocin is most important, a final nightcap, if you will. The post-orgasmic oxytocin fueling experience of cuddling and aftercare helps mitigate and counterbalance the negative effects of dopamine withdrawal in a way that can build long lasting, intimate relationships.
Hopefully, this look into your brain’s chemistry will give you a better understanding of your sexual chemistry in your current, past, and future relationships.