A few years ago, my friend Sherry and I were at dinner in one of our post-breakup, food and wine sessions. After too many glasses of Côtes du Rhône (accompanied by crispy flatbread dripping with goat cheese), it was dessert time. Though our stomachs were full, our hearts were not, and as the chocolate oozed out of the molten chocolate cake as lava erupts out of a volcano, I looked up at Sherry and said, “Better than a boy?”
Multiple scientific studies have shown that the same part of the brain registers both food and love — but I don’t need a textbook to tell me that my appetite for love and appetite for food are intertwined. The same adjectives that are commonly used to describe a relationship can also be used to describe food: stale, expired, warm, sweet. Just think of any song about love or heartbreak — it could probably be translated easily into a description of dessert. Every person does indeed have a hungry heart.
Through my own experience, as well as through observing friends’ seesaw love lives, I've seen a clear correlation between relationships and food. After a particularly disappointing ending to a relationship in my early 20s, I physically felt a hole that no amount of sugary cereal could fill, but boy did I try. Thoughts of sadness and heartbreak would be silenced, bowl after bowl, with only the sound of the spoon hitting the hollow bottom — just me and my man, Cap’n Crunch.
My time with the Cap’n was time that I didn’t miss anyone or feel any rejection or pain. I’d be so consumed by my binge eating that nothing else could take my attention. Years continue to pass with ecstatic highs and lows of relationships that tend to mirror my appetite.
Adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin skyrocket when falling love. On the opposing end, these hormones plunge during heartbreak, causing the body to look for “fixes” in other ways, which may include food and destructive behaviors.
Does your heart beat a little faster when he walks into the room? When you are attracted to someone, the brain alerts the adrenal glands, which then secrete adrenaline during the attraction phase. This causes the heart to flutter. While getting to know and falling for someone, dopamine is stimulated. Its main function is in the pleasure/reward pathway. The release of dopamine causes the feelings of pleasure and euphoria, along with the feeling of reward of the love you receive. It is also released after other pleasing activities, such as sex, eating and working out.
After a relationship is somewhat solidified, serotonin is increased. Serotonin is commonly referred to as the feel good hormone. High levels of serotonin are correlated with an overall happy disposition and reduction of anxiety. During the attachment phase, oxytocin is then released. Nicknamed the cuddle hormone, oxytocin helps the body relax by exhibiting anti-anxiety effects and stimulates a positive interaction. Simply thinking about someone will trigger a release. At orgasm, a high level of oxytocin is released in both men and women and is responsible for both pleasure and inducing emotional bonds.
How can you stimulate these hormones without falling in love? How can you make them skyrocket while heartbroken? You can follow a lifestyle change and diet to increase the production of these love hormones any day of the week, all by yourself.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Dopamine is created from the amino acid L-tyrosine, found in chicken, turkey, cheese, yogurt, almonds, avocados, lima beans and sesame seeds. Fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants will protect dopamine. Refined, highly processed foods, such as packaged desserts, salty chips and sugary cereals cause a surge of dopamine. As a response, to achieve homeostasis, the body deregulates the dopamine receptors, causing a dopamine deficit over time. Low levels of dopamine are correlated with cravings and an insatiable appetite.
Phenylalanine is another amino acid that plays a role in dopamine production by being a precursor for tyrosine. Soy products, fish and chocolate contain phenylalanine. It should be noted that the production of dopamine from chocolate is short term, where other forms can aid in a longer-lasting rise.
Chocolate also stimulates the chemical production of opioids. High fat and sugary foods release opioids into the bloodstream. Opioids bind to brain receptors that give us feelings of pleasure and mild euphoria. Opioids also increase dopamine. Natural opioids are endorphins that increase pain tolerance and offer that “high” that is associated with the post-workout feeling.
All of this explains why when we’re heartbroken and feeling low, we all reach for that chocolate bar, chocolate cake, chocolate ice cream, chocolate crumb. They provide a temporary relief from the low feeling, but soon, the feelings of loneliness creep back in.
Serotonin is produced from the essential amino acid, tryptophan. Tryptophan deficiency can lower levels of serotonin, which is associated with many mood disorders. Food sources of tryptophan are almonds, peanuts, turkey and soy. Omega 3's and omega 6's are necessary for serotonin receptors, found in "good fats" such as olive oil, avocados, salmon, flaxseed and chia seeds. B vitamins aid in serotonin production and food sources high in B's include brown rice, chicken, corn, eggs, green leads, legumes, meat, nuts, peas, sunflower seeds and nutritional yeast. The minerals calcium and magnesium play a role in serotonin production. Calcium can be found in dark leafy greens, fish with bones, sesame seeds and tofu, and magnesium is available in dark green leafy vegetables, brown rice, salmon and sesame seeds.
Long-term stress depletes serotonin levels. Short-term stress temporarily increases serotonin, then, after some amount of time, a burnout occurs and it becomes increasingly difficult for the body to produce serotonin. Reducing stress by lifestyle change or exercise is key to having steady serotonin levels. Exercise will directly increase serotonin, naturally. Stimulants gradually deplete serotonin similar to the ways stress does and include caffeine, refined carbohydrates, chocolate, sugar and heavier stimulants like cold and cough medicine, alcohol, drugs, "magic" diet pills and cigarettes. Chose your vice carefully.
Onto oxytocin: human contact, like hugs, hand holding and shaking someone's hand causes oxytocin to release. I am not suggesting you start touching every stranger on the 6 train, but hug your friends, family and loved ones. Be affectionate. A stressed body produces less oxytocin. Stress relieving techniques, such as yoga, walking and massage, are in your favor. Decrease (if not totally remove) highly processed foods, as they put stress on the body in the long term.
Try to reach out and touch somebody while eating dark chocolate and chia seeds! It is important to be aware of how you can maximize these hormones to feel your best. And if avocados don’t help you get over your ex, at least they’ll make your journey more flavorful.
Photo credit: Shuttertstock