7 Chemicals You Ought to Love
Valentine’s Day, the holiday of love, tends to stir up a variety of emotions — love, excitement, and occasionally, disgust. Among chemists, you also get a string of bad puns:
Apart from the silly puns, there is a lot of literal chemistry in the chemistry between you and your sweetie. Whether you are celebrating Valentine’s Day with the love of your life, or just in it for the chocolate, here are seven chemicals that help make Valentine’s Day fun.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that your body makes from tryptophan. It has a variety of uses: It controls intestinal movements, regulates your sleep/wake cycle, and stabilizes your mood. When serotonin is released in the synapses between neurons, it activates neurons associated with feeling good. In depressed individuals, a class of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors prevent serotonin from leaving the bloodstream to help improve patient’s moods.
So the next time you’re enjoying a date, having fun with your friends, or simply feeling happy, you can thank the serotonin in your body.
Like serotonin, dopamine is a neurotransmitter with several functions. In addition to reducing insulin and regulating motor control, it activates the neurons in the reward center of your brain. When you are engaged in pleasurable activities — going on a great date, playing a favorite game, or eating chocolate — your body releases dopamine.
Addictive drugs like cocaine, crystal meth, and opioids also stimulate dopamine production, which is why dopamine is often called “the addiction chemical.” In normal circumstances, it plays a role in attraction.
3. Phenethylamine and Theobromine
Whether you’re enjoying a box of chocolates or splitting a chocolate mousse, you are digging into some phenethylamine (left) and theobromine (right). Both are psychoactive compounds found in chocolate.
Pure phenethylamine is a fishy-smelling liquid at room temperature, while theobromine is bitter powder, so they don’t help the flavor. They do boost the amount of serotonin and dopamine in the blood, however, contributing to a happy feeling. The amounts found in chocolate are too small to have any significant impact on humans, but they can be toxic in the small bodies and faster metabolisms of cats and dogs.
Does the thought of arranging the perfect Valentine’s date make your palms sweat and your heart race? Thank your adrenal gland. It releases adrenalin (also known as adrenaline or epinephrine), which triggers your body’s “fight or flight” response. Your body responds by releasing large amounts of glucose into your bloodstream, constricting certain blood vessels, and getting your heart pumping.
While it may not be much fun on your date, epinephrine has valuable clinical uses. It is sometimes used with local anesthetics, where its vessel-constricting abilities can keep the anesthetic from diffusing throughout the body. In addition, its tendency to increase heart rates is a boon to patients whose hearts have stopped. It can also counteract the effects of histamines in individuals suffering from anaphylactic shock.
5. (-)-cis-rose oxide
Although the scent of roses is comprised of over 300 compounds, (-)-cis-rose oxide is the primary one humans detect. It is the only one of four isomers that provides the characteristic scent. You can detect as little as 5 ppb, making it a popular choice for scented oils, as well.
Ethanol is the alcohol found in alcoholic beverages, such as wine, beer, and scotch. It is formed when yeast digests sugar. The chemical is completely miscible with water in concentrations up to about 95%. It is also highly flammable, and burns at a low temperature. Igniting a small amount of liquor in a drink or dessert can make for a dramatic presentation that preserves the tasty treat beneath the flames.
Ethanol also acts as a nervous system depressant, which is why small amounts can help calm your nerves on anxiety-filled first dates. Of course, this also means that it slows your reflexes and disrupts your balance. Too much can overly reduce your inhibitions, and even make you pass out. Ethanol also stimulates the production of gastric acid in your stomach (which can make you sick). When your body metabolizes ethanol, it converts it to acetaldehyde, which is far more toxic. Acetaldehyde is what’s linked to the long-term effects of alcohol abuse, such as cirrhosis and certain cancers. Drinking in moderation is not only important, but life-saving.
Note: When it is 95% pure, ethanol forms a eutectic mixture with water that cannot be separated by distillation. To get laboratory ethanol without water, small amounts of other organic compounds, such as methanol or benzene, are added. So, if someone offers you 100% ethanol, make sure it’s for your lab … and not your drink!
7. Testosterone and Estrogen
Testosterone (left) and estrogen (right) are hormones present in both men and women, though in vastly different amounts. They promote the development of sex organs in utero and the changes to your body in puberty. In women, estrogen helps regulate the menstrual cycle and other reproductive functions. In both sexes, testosterone plays a role in stimulating the libido.
However you spend Valentine’s Day, these chemicals can help you have all the right reactions.
For more fun chemistry, check out Valentine's Day Chemistry.