You have an incredible kiss, the kind that makes you weak in the knees. Or you’re about to get off with a big old orgasm, or maybe you’re just really enjoying yourself and everything feels really good. Your mind lets go of anxiety and the to-do list you have written up for today. You feel totally blissed out. But why is that?
When you read about orgasm, hugs, kisses, and pleasure, you’re often told about how the brain is flooded with “feel-good” chemicals. Maybe you’ll hear the words “oxytocin” or “dopamine.” And for good reason! These are two of the main neurotransmitters that the brain produces when you experience sexual pleasure.
But there are even more chemicals and hormones that contribute to all those delightful feelings of sexual touch and pleasure. Science is pretty cool. Here is a quick overview brought to you by experts in the field of pleasure.
In the initial phase of the sexual response cycle, you start to get excited. This is when your body is beginning to get warmed up for sex. When this happens, the brain releases the neurotransmitter serotonin. This is the chemical that makes you feel happy.
Serotonin’s responsibilities include “regulating mood, behavior, appetite, sleep, sexual desire and response,” explains Dr. Lanae St.John, a board certified sexologist and author of Read Me: A Parental Primer for “The Talk. “It is produced in the brain throughout a sexual experience, but too much can work to inhibit sexual activity.”
You know that whole “butterflies in the stomach” feeling you get when you see or kiss someone you really dig? Walfish explains that this happens because of reduced blood flow which leads to the release of adrenaline. This chemical “causes increased heart rate and blood pressure, consequently sending more blood to the muscles,” she says. When you’re starting to get busy, adrenaline starts coursing through the body. Blood rushes to the genitals and causes sexual arousal.
Adrenaline is connected to the body’s natural “fight or flight” response. While this response is usually connected to fear or anxiety, we know from brain scans that the fear and love centers of the brain are actually quite close to one another. And, let’s face it, that nervous feeling you get when you’re into someone sure feels a lot like panic, amirite?
Have you heard of norepinephrine? Well, you should learn about it because it’s important to this whole sex thing. “Released during stimulation, this hormone mobilizes the body for action. In sex, it activates physiological changes like increased heart rate, sweaty palms, or pupil dilation,” St.John says.
Like many feel-good chemicals, a little goes a long way. If you get too flooded with norepinephrine, it can cause anxiety. “Too much of this hormone can activate negative emotions. [It] is also known as noradrenaline,” St.John says.
Dopamine is the body’s reward chemical. When you’re doing something your body likes, like getting busy, it drops this hormone into the mix to say, “OH YEAH! This is good! Keep it up!” This chemical further increases sexual desire.
And the hits keep on coming. “When you orgasm, your brain gets flooded with dopamine,” St.John tells us. “Dopamine signals to your brain to take notice of what’s happening so you can get more of the things that bring you pleasure—sex, food, etc.”
Oxytocin is probably the most well-known pleasure-related chemical. Its street name is “the love hormone” or “the cuddle hormone.” It is responsible for feelings of love, attachment, and pair-bonding. It is produced in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that maintains homeostasis (physiological balance). It is directly connected to the nervous system.
“You can get a solid boost of oxytocin from cuddling or touch. You do not have to have sex to get this feeling going (though it sure is nice),” St.John says. “Oxytocin peaks at the point of orgasm and flows in the blood for some time after.”
Finally, there is prolactin, a lovely little chemical that promotes feelings of satisfaction after sexual pleasure and orgasm. It does more than that, though! “It’s also the hormone that is responsible for breast growth and also milk production in chest-/breastfeeding folks,” St. John tells us. I f*cking love science.
Gigi Engle is a certified sex coach, sexologist, educator, and writer living in Chicago.