As humans, it is our nature to give and accept love, which is one of the greatest feelings on earth. Historical evidence suggests that parent-offspring bonding existed several million years ago. Social connection and loving relationships have always been essential in our evolution. It’s not surprising why people have found ways to celebrate love throughout the centuries and across many parts of the world. Even non-human primates and other animals demonstrate attachment and imprinting behaviors to one another for the benefit of survival.
Ancient Greeks identified four types of love: erotic or romantic love (Eros), love of friends and equals (Philia), love of parents for children (Storge), and love for humanity (Agape). To this day, romantic love is still one of the most enduring subjects in songs, poems, novels, and movies. But besides its entertaining contributions to artworks, love, in its purest form, has so much more to offer to science.
Since Valentine’s Day is approaching, let us explore some of the healing powers of love. We know how falling in love can affect our emotions. But apart from feeling happy, valued, and content, do reciprocal relationships translate to actual health benefits? This article outlines a few surprising health benefits of love (in general).
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The Science of Love
When you’re in a loving relationship, there’s a surge of various chemicals, reminding your brain and entire body that things are good and everything is going to be okay. Does this mean we should all learn to listen to our hearts? As you work on your romance, your brain releases dopamine and norepinephrine. These chemicals allow you to feel good, euphoric, and satisfied and can be addictive — similar to the effects of illegal drugs.
Over the years, couples who are in happy and healthy relationships have lower serotonin levels, while oxytocin, the “love hormone,” floods their body. Oxytocin triggers love and protection and will remain in the body as long as the relationship stays romantic. You’ll know these chemicals are at work when you notice couples are always smiling, holding hands, or overflowing with happiness.
There’s no denying that love can positively impact your emotional, physical, mental, and overall well-being. Here are six surprising health benefits of loving relationships that are backed by science:
1. Boosts Immune System
Science tells us that angry feelings can harm your immune system. Getting into a new relationship can be somewhat stressful, causing cortisol levels to rise initially. Cortisol (the “stress” hormone) alters immune responses and leads to inflammation and an inability to fight off infections.
But the opposite is also true, as loving relationships can lead to better immune function. When we feel loved, cared for, and secure, our body releases oxytocin — the “love” hormone, which can undo cortisol’s effects and restore the body’s balance. This balance improves your immune function and increases your defense against viruses and infections.
“Unconditional love is the most powerful stimulant to the immune system.” — Bernie S. Siegel.
According to a new study on women published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, falling in love influences the immune system. In this small study, researchers found those who fell in love had increased activity of antiviral genes compared to when they began the study.
“However, this increased activity of antiviral genes is also consistent with the biological preparation of the body for pregnancy. From this women-only sample, both of these interpretations remain possible,” said Damian Murray, lead author of the study.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said with men in love, as researchers have yet to gather conclusive research to suggest otherwise.
2. Promotes Faster Healing
The same oxytocin the body releases when you’re in a stable and loving relationship can promote faster wound healing. In a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers found that couples in a positive relationship saw their wounds heal about 60% faster than their more hostile counterparts!
“Love cures people, both the ones who give it and the ones who receive it.” — Karl Menninger.
Meanwhile, people in a stressful relationship tend to have a slower wound-healing capacity due to pro-inflammatory cytokines released when they are sad, lonely, or the subject of abuse. Jean-Philippe Gouin, the lead researcher, concluded that “these data confirm and extend prior evidence that the high oxytocin levels associated with frequent positive communication behavior may be responsible for the impact of positive marital interaction on wound healing.”
3. Lowers Blood Pressure
Do you ever wonder why you feel lightness in your heart when you’re with someone you love? Well, it may have something to do with your blood pressure dropping. Evidence suggests that love is good for the heart and that married couples are more likely to survive and recover better from heart problems than single people.
“There is a kind of serenity in love which is almost paradise.” — Allan Badiou.
Being in love can make you calmer and more at peace, which could translate into lower blood pressure. A new study reports that people with high levels of romantic relationship satisfaction experience a slight drop in blood pressure and heart rate during social interactions.
In another study by Biological Psychology, researchers found that physical touch or hugging someone you love can also result in lower blood pressure due to increased levels of oxytocin in the body. While most of these studies are restricted to romantic partners, the cardiovascular benefits of love extend to any type of love, including relationships with your friends and family.
4. Eases Acute or Chronic Pain
“Love hurts, love scars, love wounds, and marks any heart.” — Nazareth.
In this ‘70s hit song Love Hurts, the lyrics effectively illustrate what it’s like to experience the downside of love, which could be heartaches and pain. However, it is also true that intense, passionate feelings of love can act as a potent painkiller.
Scientists believe that falling in love can provide effective pain relief by stimulating the brain’s reward pathway, similar to the rush of an illicit drug like cocaine — but without the side effects. According to one study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, love can give you a feeling of euphoria, which triggers the release of happy hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, and adrenaline, giving you a natural high.
Oxytocin release seems to be a recurring theme when it comes to love, as another study found that this hormone can help relieve and prevent migraine. In this study, researchers gave people with chronic headaches a nasal spray with a dose of oxytocin. After four hours, 50% of the participants reported a reduction in their head pain, while 27% reported no pain in the same timeframe.
Furthermore, looking at the pictures of the person you love have been shown to produce analgesic effects, which could be associated with neural activations in reward-processing centers. Simply being in the same room as your romantic partner — even without touching or receiving verbal support — can also improve your pain tolerance, as reported in the Scandinavian Journal of Pain.
While love isn’t going to replace modern medicine anytime soon, it does give healthcare providers an alternative approach to pain management.
5. Less Depression and Substance Abuse
The great thing about love is that not only does it provide physical health benefits, but it also works wonders for your mental health. A healthy, loving relationship increases euphoria and a sense of belongingness and, in turn, reduces stress, anxiety, and depression. Being loved improves your self-worth and feelings of being valued, which could be essential in dealing with mental health issues.
In the United States, about 16 million adults experience depression every year, while 20% of people with depression or anxiety disorder also have substance use disorder. According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 11% of Americans 12 and older use illegal drugs, or 60.1%, if you include alcohol and tobacco.
Teenagers and people with mental health disorders are the most at risk for drug use and addiction, especially In this social media age where too much time online has led to social isolation. But with all the chaos in the world, love might just be the answer.
“All obstacles that are perceived in love can transform into the greatest life lessons.” — Gabby Berstein.
Studies have shown that positive social interactions, especially with partners/spouses, lower the risk of depression and suicidal ideation. According to a 2015 survey, family relationship issues were the biggest presenting problem in children and young adults attending mental health services. In the community, people in neighborhoods with stronger social relationships experience lower rates of mental health problems than those with lesser social cohesion.
What’s more interesting is that stable and healthy relationships also encourage healthy habits. In a study published by the American Journal of Public Health, researchers found that married couples or couples with children are less likely to experience substance abuse than singles. “The happiest, healthiest people in old age didn’t smoke (or quit early in life), exercised, drank moderately or not at all, and stayed mentally active.” writes Arthur C. Brooks in The Atlantic.
But whether it’s a romantic partner, a friend, or a family member, it’s always good to have someone who can hold you responsible for living a healthy lifestyle and prevent you from making unhealthy choices.
Related: Here’s a YHF article on psilocybin as a promising new therapy for depression.
6. Promotes a Longer and Happier Life
“Lost and lonely, now you’ve given me the will to survive. When we’re hungry, love will keep us alive.” — Eagles.
How amazing would it be if all it takes to survive in this world is — love? People would probably live for as long as they have someone who loves them. But while falling in love or getting married won’t feed your hungry stomach, it can be instrumental in giving you a longer and happier life.
Researchers at the Harvard Study of Adult Development concluded that the people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. Furthermore, in a recent meta-analysis study, the result showed that being unmarried is associated with a 15% greater risk of mortality.
At the same time, scientists believe that romantic love is one of the best predictors of happiness. When you’re in the early stages of falling in love, there is an increase in dopamine activity in the brain, allowing you to feel pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation. After a year of romantic relationships, oxytocin levels start to increase considerably.
For romantic relationships, oxytocin is significantly higher in couples with an active sex life, which could provide even more health benefits. According to a study in the Journal of Family Psychology, the quality of family relationships has more impact on happiness than the family’s income level.
On the same note, it is important to understand that simply falling in love or building acquaintances is not enough. It’s not just about the number of relationships you have, but rather, it’s the quality of the relationship that really matters. Ultimately, it’s still better to be single than to be in an unhappy marriage.
Bottom Line: Incorporate Love Into Your Life
In addition to caring for each other, don’t forget to practice self-love. As people used to say: you cannot truly love others until you learn to love yourself. As cliché as it sounds, there’s some truth to this statement. Do your best to look past your flaws and appreciate your best attributes. You must learn to value yourself without needing validation from others. Make time to attend to your own self-care so you can enjoy the many benefits of social connection.
Here are a few ways to commit to a life of love:
- Nurture the love you already have
- Give love freely
- Be kind to others
- Stay connected
- Spend more time with your friends and family
- Focus on doing things that make you happy
- Find someone to share your life with
- Meditate and pray
- Volunteer at your local community
Remember, love comes in all forms, which means everyone can benefit from giving and receiving it. It doesn’t matter if you’re married or single, young or old as long as you have love in your heart, you can live a longer and happier life.
However, love is anything but simple. In fact, it can be complex, mysterious, and unpredictable. With every good thing in this world, there’s always a downside. While being in loving relationships gives you pleasure and satisfaction, losing it may lead to heartache, loneliness, and grief. But that shouldn’t stop you from incorporating love into your life. After all, it’s what makes love so worth it.
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