The health benefits of love
Evidence suggests that love evolved millions of years ago, as our ancestors formed emotional bonds that would motivate them to protect their children and warn others about large-toothed animals hiding in the bushes. Without love, the human species couldn’t survive. The capacity to love is in our DNA, and as the billboard charts suggest, remains at the very heart of human experience.
For most of us, modern life is much safer than it was for early humans. We no longer need love to protect us from tigers. But could love offer other protective effects for us 21st century humans? Could being in love make us healthier? This question has been a source of interest for the scientific community for decades. And it turns out the answer is yes.
Whether we see love as a feeling or a verb, it’s a subjective experience, often changing in meaning over a lifetime. That makes it tricky to define. While some definitions have gained traction, such as Robert Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love, understanding love remains a topic of ongoing investigation across many fields of study.
From sensual to sentimental, friendly to forbidden, love is generally understood as a strong sense of caring and connection toward another. We’re focusing on romantic love here (it is Valentine’s Day, after all), but modern love takes many forms – romantic, companionate, platonic or familial. We love our partner(s), family, friends, self, and, of course, our pets, all of whom play a role in our sense of wellbeing.
Comedian George Burns is said to have compared love to backache: “It doesn’t show up on X-rays, but you know it’s there.” Turns out, this isn’t entirely true. Scientists can now identify love-related brain activity using MRI scans. When anthropologist Helen Fisher and her team scanned the brains of people who were in love or had recently experienced a break-up, MRI scans showed that being in love lit up the parts of the brain associated with pleasure and reward. People who had been dumped showed more activity in the areas of the brain linked with toothache.
Interestingly, different brain chemicals and neurotransmitters come into play at different stages of love. In the early days of romance, dopamine – the feel-good chemical – starts to increase, stimulating feelings of motivation and happiness. Serotonin levels fluctuate, affecting mood and behavior. And anyone familiar with the sweaty palms, butterflies and anxiety of a new relationship will not be surprised to learn that cortisol, the stress hormone, also increases at this time.
As the relationship becomes more established, dopamine levels remain high. Cortisol and serotonin return to normal. Oxytocin increases, helping to strengthen bonds and attachment. The interactions between these chemicals may also explain how being in love can benefit both mental and physical health at a cellular level, as discussed below.
Research suggests that being in a happy relationship can boost health, through a variety of behavioral and biochemical mechanisms. Let’s explore a few examples of how love benefits body and mind:
Married people are more likely to live longer than those who are unmarried. The jury’s out on whether this is because people with good health are more likely to get married, or whether being married leads to better health, by increasing the social, economic and environmental factors that promote wellbeing. Couples are likely to encourage each other to take care of themselves, visit the doctor when they feel unwell, and spot symptoms that may be missed by individuals. At the neurophysiological level, different brain chemicals and hormones can fluctuate with relationship status, which affect stress levels and in turn, health.
While most research focuses on heterosexual married couples, similar patterns can be seen in LGBTQ couples and in unmarried long-term romantic relationships.
While falling in love may set pulses racing, love actually improves heart health.
Love activates the parts of the brain that control the autonomic nervous system, which regulates heart rate and blood pressure. This may explain why people in long-term relationships experience fewer heart attacks and strokes than those who are not. A study into type 2 diabetes found that people in relationships – whether happy or not – were less likely to have high blood sugar levels.
Oxytocin is sometimes described as a “natural medicine” that protects against illness and infection. It’s anti-inflammatory, which may explain why people in loving relationships recover more quickly from illnesses and major surgery. Studies show that oxytocin and secure relationships have a positive effect on stress, social isolation and chronic illness.
On the flip side, cortisol, which decreases in long-term relationships, increases stress which makes people more susceptible to infection and a host of illnesses.
When our partner’s happy, we’re more likely to feel happy. When they’re in a grump, we’ll probably pick that up too. The same goes for the trillions of bacteria living in our gut microbiomes. Just as our partner’s mood affects ours, we’re also likely to share a similar biodiversity of gut bacteria. This is most likely due to living in the same environment, eating similar foods, and transferring bacteria through kissing and close contact.
This has several knock-on effects for health: poor gut biodiversity can trigger inflammation and increase the risk of obesity and chronic disease. By keeping a lid on stress levels, love can ensure the good bacteria prevail. Talk about following your gut.
Navigating the gnarly road between love and pain might seem like a job for Adele, but scientists are starting to map out links. The results are a growing body of evidence that love can reduce pain. While chronic pain can certainly take a toll on close relationships, being married is associated with lower pain levels. For example, happily married patients with rheumatoid arthritis reported less pain than unmarried patients or those in less happy relationships.
Love also buffers our perception of the threat of pain. In one study, happily married women were threatened with (small!) electric shocks. MRI scans showed that when their partner held their hand, threat-related brain activity diminished more than when holding a stranger’s hand.
There are also a host of emotional and social benefits from being in a happy relationship. Reduced loneliness and isolation, especially in older age, have clear links with good health. Being in love boosts feelings of happiness, contentment and fun, so it’s not really surprising that love is associated with lower levels of stress, depression and anxiety.
All of this evidence suggests that being in love is an overlooked social determinant of health. So, what does this mean for people who aren’t attached? When it comes to taking care of your health, you can decide how often you’ll hit the gym or how much extra broccoli to load on your plate – but you can’t exactly control if or when you’ll fall in love.
Worry not. Many of the health benefits described above apply to all close relationships, not just the bond with our significant other. Evidence points to a wealth of positive benefits associated with having close friends: longer life expectancy, reduced stress and fewer colds, and even feeling more confident about climbing a steep hill. Positive relationships with family and friends are just as good for your health as romance.
Lao Tzu once said, “Love is a force more formidable than any other.” According to the research, it’s certainly a force for health.
It can be all too easy to take our closest relationships for granted. Perhaps we think, “they know how I feel,” or “they know I’m here if they need me.” But love is a verb. It’s in the actions we take. So don’t take your loved ones for granted. Show your love every day, not just on special occasions.
Whether you’re celebrating Valentine’s Day or not, the message is clear: take time to cultivate close relationships with the people you love – whoever that may be – and reap the rewards together.
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