Forget the medicine cabinet— romantic relationships can be a ticket to good health Love promotes health. Esch, T., Stefano, G.B. Charité-University Medicine Berlin, Institute for General Practice and Family Medicine, Berlin, Germany. Neuroendocrinology letters, 2005 Jun;26(3):264-7.. (Thanks, sweetie.) But is Cupid’s bow a double-edged sword? We took a closer look at love— from long-term relationships to casual encounters, marriage to heartbreak— to see how it really affects our health.
Heart Healthy — The Need-to-Know
Love isn’t all about the butterflies. There are chemical processes in the brain that affect how we feel The Neurobiology of Love. Esch, T., Stefano, G.B. Charité-University Medicine Berlin, Institute for General Practice and Family Medicine, Berlin, Germany. Neuroendocrinology Letters, 2005 Jun;26(3):175-92.. When we’re with a significant other, the body releases hormones, like oxytocin and dopamine, that signal feelings of trust, pleasure, and reward.
And all that happens in the brain may be good for the heart— literally. In one study, researchers found people’s blood pressure was lower when they were with a romantic partner than when they were interacting with anyone else. (Guess they weren’t fighting…) Partner interactions are associated with reduced blood pressure in the natural environment: ambulatory monitoring evidence from a healthy, multiethnic adult sample. Gump, B.B., Polk, D.E., Kamarck, T.W., et al. Department of Psychology, State University of New York at Oswego, New York. Psychosomatic Medicine, 2001 May-Jun;63(3):423-33.. Scientists suggest blood pressure’s lower in these situations because romantic partners feel familiar and comfortable with each other. Yet, even new relationships have their advantages— researchers discovered fresh love may shield against stress Love alters autonomic reactivity to emotions. Schneiderman, I, Zilberstein-Kra, Y., Leckman, J.F., et al. Gonda Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat-Gan, Israel. Emotion, 2011 Dec;11(6):1314-21.. Oh, the joys of the “honeymoon” stage.
Love Lockdown — Your Action Plan
In most cases, love and wellness go hand-in-hand. But beware: People in unsupportive and harmful relationships are at greater risk for developing heart problems, depression, and a weaker immune system Social relationships and health: a flashpoint for health policy. Umberson, D., Montez, J.K. University of Texas at Austin, Department of Sociology, Austin, TX. Journal of Health & Social Behavior, 2010;51 Suppl:S54-66.. And with any relationship comes the risk of heartbreak, which really does hurt, as scientists uncovered neurological similarities between feelings of social rejection and physical pain.
And it may not be a good idea to get hitched too soon. When researchers looked at marriage among couples up to 26 years old, they found a link between tying the knot and a higher BMI Marriage and Health in the Transition to Adulthood: Evidence for African Americans in Add Health. Harris, K.M., Lee, H, Deleone, F.Yl. Carolina Population Center and Department of Sociology University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Journal of Family Issues, 2010 Aug;31(8):1106-1143.. And, sorry gents, early marriage was also associated with an increased rate of depression in African American men and smoking in white men. Maybe their spouses were Housewives?
So here are some tips to take advantage of the potential health benefits of Cupid’s arrow, giving us another reason to thank a loved one this Valentine’s Day (and every day that follows!):
- Write a love letter. Forget texting— one study found writing love letters can reduce cholesterol. Signed, sealed, delivered— it benefits both parties!
- Grab a hand. Holding hands with a significant other can reduce stress more than holding a stranger’s (which would be weird anyway) Lending a hand: social regulation of the neural response to threat. Coan, J.A., Schaefer, H.S., Davidson, R.J. Department of Psychology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA. Psychological Science, 2006 Dec;17(12):1032-9.. Looks like the Beatles were onto something.
- Hug it out. Don’t forget the power of a good hug. Frequent hugging between lovers is linked to high oxytocin levels (the love hormone!) and lower blood pressure in some women More frequent partner hugs and higher oxytocin levels are linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate in premenopausal women. Light, K.C., Grewen, K.M., Amico, J.A. Department of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC. Biological Psychology, 2005 Apr;69(1):5-21. Epub 2004 Dec 29..
- Get down n’ dirty. It’s no secret sex can reduce stress, so remember to fit in some quality time between the sheets to feel good in more ways than one In the mood for love or vice versa? Exploring the relations among sexual activity, physical affection, affect, and stress in the daily lives of mid-aged women. Burleson, M.H., Travatahn, W.R., Todd, M. Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Arizona State University, Phoenix, Arizona. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 2007 Jun;36(3):357-68..
- Hit the gym (together). Studies suggest married pairs frequent the gym more often and are less likely to call it quits than when they go alone Twelve month adherence of adults who joined a fitness program with a spouse vs without a spouse. Wallace, J.P., Raglin, J.S., Jastremski, C.A. Department of Kinesiology, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, Sep;35(3):206-13.. So become a power couple and sweat it out together, boosting some endorphins along the way Beta-endorphin response to exercise. An update. Goldfarb, A.H., Jamurtas, A.Z. Exercise and Sport Science Department, University of North Carolina-Greensboro, North Carolina. Sports Medicine, 1997 Jul;24(1):8-16..
How does your relationship benefit your health? Tell us in the comments below!