Love Is All You Need: 3 Ways Love Can Improve Your Health
It’s the most wonderful time of the year and the FindMeCure team is even more jolly and hopeful. Not only are we evaluating the year soon-to-be behind us with a sense of contentment and purpose (you can look forward to our 2018 recap that will be live on December 28th), but we’re also starting to feel the Holiday spirit and thinking of ways to brighten up your Holidays as well.
And what a better way to spread happiness, than to talk about all the wonderful things that give life meaning. Namely, love. That’s right, if you needed more reasons to make your friends and family feel all loved up this Holiday season, you’re about to be let in on the science of love and how love improves our physical and mental health, our health outcomes and our longevity.
But before we get to the jolly part, here are some things we’d like to acknowledge. Not everybody is lucky enough to have a family they can visit over the Holidays and some of you are feeling lonely and depressed this season. All the talk around family and spreading the joy might be frustrating for you and make you feel invisible.
We want you to know that this article is for you too. There is not one way to reach out and connect with others. Look around for all the ways you can get involved in your community: many non-profit organizations have Holiday events for vulnerable or marginalized demographics that you can volunteer your time at. Remember that giving love can have the same benefits as receiving it, so by helping others, you can help yourself too.
Now, we’ve kept you curious long enough. Let’s take a look at all the ways love makes us healthier.
Love fights stress
One of the biggest ‘bad guys’ in the health community is stress. You’ll have a hard time finding a disease that doesn’t have stress listed as one of the possible risk factors for developing it. Even IBD flare-ups are often contributed to stress, autoimmune conditions are thought to be ‘unlocked’ by it and even our perception of pain can depend on our current stress levels.
But what exactly is stress and why is it so scary? Stress is a very broad term that can describe anything from generalized anxiety to feelings of inadequacy and even social isolation. WebMD puts it in simple terms: “stress is the body’s reaction to harmful situations – whether they’re real or perceived”, and we like that phrasing because it’s accurate, yet non-descriptive. A lot of things can cause stress, especially if we feel ill-equipped to deal with them, i.e. protect ourselves from the real or perceived harm. But what stress causes to the body is often a lot worse than the anticipated consequences of our situation.
While our bodies can handle short periods of stress and can even benefit from the fight-or-flight response, prolonged, chronic stress can wear them down. Stress releases the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, both of which are responsible for our hearts racing and breathing quickening. You can already picture what happens if we’re exposed to stress hormones too often or for too long.
That’s right, stress affects the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, it also increases inflammation, irritation of the digestive tract, high blood sugar, it weakens the immune system, causes sleep problems and messes up the balance of the reproductive system.
Okay, we hear you say, but what’s love got to do with it? Well, love, on the other hand, is linked to the production of high doses of oxytocin – the ‘feel-good’ hormone, which downregulates the production of cortisol. Oxytocin is like a magic potion and we’re only slightly exaggerating: oxytocin is linked to decreased cell death and inflammation, while at the same time increasing immunity and heart performance.
Also, the release of cytokines and endorphins, both byproducts of feeling loved and connected, might be linked to less reactivation of latent viruses according to a study from the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at the Ohio medical university. So maybe our favorite childhood fairytales are true and love really is the most powerful force on Earth… more powerful than latent viruses, anyway.
Love makes us hit the gym more
After so many studies on the connection between health and fulfilling social life, researchers had to ask why. Why does love improve health, apart from the beneficial hormones associated with it? One of the possible answers may have a lot to do with the way love influences our behavior.
Strong social ties, according to research data, are linked to ‘health behaviors’ like physical activity, eating a balanced diet, going for regular check-ups, and they’re also linked to a lack of or limited participation in other, harmful behaviors like smoking, drug abuse, heavy drinking. Granted, results from years of research are not clear-cut like that – there is, for example, a link between marriage and weight gain, but the prevalent trend studies found was that people with healthy connections are generally more likely to participate in ‘health behaviors’.
Feeling responsible for loved ones, wanting to spend more time with them (which requires good health) and the high self-esteem linked to strong social ties might be behind such ‘health behaviors’.
But what’s even more interesting is the connection between self-love and ‘health behaviors’. Research seems to suggest that not only are self-love and high self-esteem linked to good self-care that includes exercise and healthy eating but the other way around is true as well – healthy habits like a balanced whole foods diet and physical activity can have a beneficial impact on feelings of self-love, self-acceptance, and confidence.
All of this may sound obvious: of course, having people you love in your life improves your self-esteem, which in turn makes you more likely to exercise and not ‘eat your feelings’ or use smoking and alcohol as distractions from feelings of loneliness and isolation.
But to have it backed up by science is a whole another level of progress. It means we’re a few more steps closer to a truly holistic medical approach that takes into consideration all aspects of our lives. If toxic social surroundings or no social life at all can be as bad for our health as smoking, then we can finally give our mental health the consideration it deserves.
The importance of physical touch
The mere physical presence of a loved one can have an effect on your health for the better. It’s common knowledge that cuddling releases oxytocin and it acts as a powerful form of bonding – some researchers go as far as to suggest that ‘casual sex’ cannot stay casual if followed by cuddling because the hormones released during cuddling can lead to feelings of attachment. But did you know that simply sleeping next to someone you love can improve your health?
We’ll leave aside the fact that oxytocin can have an addictive effect – you’ve all heard that ‘love is a drug’ and it’s one of those cliches that have a base in reality. What really surprised us about oxytocin, though, is that the levels of this hormone are especially low in people with irritable bowel syndrome. And if you suffer from any kind of inflammation at all cuddling could aid your healing, as oxytocin is directly linked to fighting inflammation.
But it’s not just romantic love that has these healing properties. If babies can benefit from being held by their parents and the practice of skin-to-skin touch with the mother right after birth can have such a positive health impact, we can reap the benefits of physical closeness long into adulthood. So, don’t let cultural norms hold you back – if you love your friends, feel free to give them as many hugs as you want (so long as they’re cool with it).
And while we’re on the topic, hug strangers too. Someone you just met at a Christmas party but it already seems you two will get along great? Hug them. Spread the love however you can. We might not all be doctors and researchers but we too have the power to heal by simply making the important people in our lives feel loved.