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What's So Great About Kissing?

A serious, tongue-tangling kiss triggers a whole spectrum of physiological processes that can boost your immunity and generally spruce up that body you work so hard to keep attractive.

The Bonding Power of Locking Lips

For man and animals, kissing is a bonding behavior, she says. "There are all kinds of social reasons that humans and animals kiss, and they don't all have to do with sex. Most cultures in the world do kiss sexually. [But some] peoples in South America, some in the Himalaya Mountains, do not kiss. They find it revolting to exchange saliva."

Kissing also engenders touch, often called "the mother of the senses, because of its power," says Fisher. "We know that massaging someone produces increased levels of oxytocin, which is a calming hormone. So there's every reason to think kissing is extremely calming, if you know the person well, or extremely stimulating if you are in love with somebody."

Studies of rodents -- voles, specifically -- have shown that oxytocin makes a mother vole become attached to its offspring, says Larry Young, PhD, professor of psychiatry in the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience at Emory University Medical School in Atlanta.

Whether a guy vole sticks around "afterward" seems to be driven by oxytocin, Young tells WebMD.

Prairie voles are the only vole species that mate for life; their genetic makeup drives them to produce satisfying amounts of oxytocin. On the other hand, mountain voles are loners and breed promiscuously; they produce virtually no oxytocin.

In humans, this translates into the bonding benefits of kissing, foreplay, every bit of touching you do.

Here's a tip: "One of most powerful releases of oxytocin is stimulation of the nipples," Young tells WebMD. It's the same biological mechanism that triggers milk flow during nursing. Sucking triggers oxytocin release, and thus the bond is created.

Humans, interestingly enough, are the only species that includes nipple stimulation in lovemaking, he adds.

Romance, Love -- or Lust?

That rush that sweeps through your body, during those particularly great kisses? Fisher knows it well.

"Kissing is contextual," she says. "A kiss can be wildly sexual, wildly romantic, or it can be deeply gratifying because it's an affirmation of attachment. Kissing somebody for the first time, rather than the 200th or 2,000th time, creates a situation of incredible novelty."

That rush you feel is probably from two natural stimulants -- dopamine and norepinephrine, Fisher says. "They tend to be activated when you get into a novel situation."

Fisher says there are three different stages one typically goes through:

  • lust -- the craving for sexual gratification
  • romantic love -- the feeling of giddiness, euphoria, sleeplessness, and loss of appetite when you meet a new love
  • attachment -- that sense of security you find with a with long-term partner.

"Each of these is associated with different chemical systems in the brain," says Fisher. Sex drive and lust are triggered by testosterone, in both men and women. Dopamine and norepinephrine kick in when romance begins. Oxytocin is a factor in at the attachment phase, bringing the sense of calm and peace you find with "the one."

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