Love is in the air? Or is it just the chemicals in the chocolate…?

12/02/2016  -  10.40

Professor Nazira Karodia, Interim Head, Faculty of Science & Engineering

Valentine’s Day is almost upon us again. It is no coincidence that we are at the beginning of the new Spring; the sap flows, the leaf buds are ready to burst forth and the first flowers of new season are with us.


It is the season when the young and the not-so young folk go courting and 'love is in the air'. We are very much animals of the season. However, that which sets the sap pulsing and that which courses through our blood are chemicals hence this exploration of the chemistry love and affection in the season of Valentine.


Secretly, and not so secretly, we seek out that which will enhance our attractiveness, our sense of happiness, that which will banish our natural shyness, that which will make possible the hope of finding a mate. Of course for this purpose you may have your hair rearranged, pay attention to your attire or acquire a sporty car (preferably red); of interest to us is what chemicals you are likely to harness for the 'mating' project. For this we have to mine our 'happy' chemicals.


The supermarkets are flowing with Valentine’s Day chocolates. Chocolate is comfort food through winter; so why offer it again in the new season? Chocolate carries an amalgam of different chemicals, primarily the stimulant theobromine (C7H8N4O2) (theo = god, i.e. the elixir of the gods), which has a very similar chemical structure to caffeine, and other compounds which affect our biology.


Few of us who have savoured a piece of dark, sumptuous chocolate will not concede to its magical properly of making us feel happy; eating chocolates is pleasurable! So what is it in chocolate that is mood altering towards a feeling of pleasure and possibly love?


Chocolates increase our serotonin, the compound that dispels feelings of loneliness and boosts our sense of value and well being. Women tend to be more sensitive to chocolate (perhaps a myth?) - in fact, women have higher levels of serotonin and are therefore likely to gain a 'mood' enhancement from the serotonin in chocolate.


Chocolate provides us with phenylethylamine (C8H11N) which increases the workings of dopamine (C8H11NO2) to produce feelings of euphoria and pleasure; hence the 'aphrodisiac' property of chocolate! Phenylethylamine also enhances the endorphins - our pleasure chemical.


Remember all these 'love' compounds are already present in our bodies. A hug or kiss will boost their effectiveness, but chocolates help. And there are other 'love' chemicals not associated with chocolates: adrenaline is the 'excitement' chemical; a loving intimacy enhances our oxytocin, another 'pleasure' compound; and cologne or perfume carry pheromones, the scent of love.


Enjoy the Spring of 2016 and dream of love.