Chuck, my parents tell me that love and health are related, because I’m not feeling so well in either regard. So what’s love got to do with it? – Sally W., Seneca Falls, N.Y.
I’m no Dr. Ruth, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that there are definite correlations among the brain, body and even the bedroom, and there’s no better time to address them than now, when we’re coming up on Valentine’s Day.
Just this past week, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology reported, “Researchers are … finding that love can play a critical role in the health of long-term relationships and of the couples themselves.”
Dr. Lisa Diamond from the University of Utah conducted research of couples in romantic relationships and found that their levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, increased during separation and had negative effects on positive interactions and sleep, among other things.
Diamond concluded, “The findings can contribute to our emerging understanding of the processes through which longstanding romantic ties are beneficial for our health.”
ABC News reported on a study conducted by the State University of New York at Oswego that found that blood pressure lowered when people were with their spouses or partners. This was true whether they were happy or not in their relationships. In short, “familiarity breeds lower systolic numbers.”
Sarah Mahoney from Prevention magazine further explained: “A study last year from the University of Pittsburgh found that women in good marriages have a much lower risk of cardiovascular disease than those in high-stress relationships. The National Longitudinal Mortality Study, which has been tracking more than a million subjects since 1979, shows that married people live longer, have fewer heart attacks and lower cancer rates, and even get pneumonia less frequently than singles. And a new study from the University of Iowa found that ovarian cancer patients with a strong sense of connection to others and satisfying relationships had more vigorous ‘natural killer’ cell activity at the site of the tumor than those who didn’t have those social ties (these desirable white blood cells kill cancerous cells as part of the body’s immune system).”
That is likely why the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies surmised that close relationships generally add years to one’s life.
MedicineNet is a great website for a variety of health and fitness education, including information on love and sex. Here are a few keys that clearly show the interrelation among brain, body and bedroom:
Oxytocin, the so-called “hormone of love and comfort,” is plentiful in couples when they are intimate. When oxytocin flows, endorphins increase and pain decreases. That is why some individuals find headaches, arthritis pain or PMS symptoms dissipate after sex. MSN Health reported, “Doctors at the University of North Carolina have found that hugging may dramatically lower blood pressure and boost blood levels of oxytocin.”
Studies also show that having sex once or twice a week has been linked with higher levels of an antibody called immunoglobulin A, or IgA, which can protect you from infections and getting colds, according to scientists at Wilkes University. MSM Health added, “A 2002 study from the University of Bristol in England found that men who had sex two or more times a week cut their risk of having a fatal heart attack in half.”
For women, one of the most common causes of arousal dysfunction is day-to-day discord with their partners. The old adage that “sex starts in the kitchen” is as true today as it ever has been. Similarly, for men who are overachievers or workaholics, human experience and studies both show that where our mind is, our libido follows. A host of bedroom inhibitors and stimulators start or end in the mind, revealing that in both genders, the brain is still the largest and most powerful sexual organ.
Dopamine is another feel-good brain chemical that often is associated with the early stages of a romance or feelings of infatuation and being in love. Dopamine surges usher in feelings of contentment and euphoria. However, dopamine levels in relationships last anywhere from six to 18 months (maybe longer), which may correspond with people’s feelings of “falling out of love.” Though love is definitely more than a feeling, I believe dopamine is God’s way of getting our relationships off the launchpad. We are then responsible for implementing daily acts of love (if you will, speaking our mates’ love languages) that grow and drive our relationships deeper and wider.
Endorphins, the brain’s natural pain and stress fighters, sometimes called the E narcotic, are another type of neurotransmitter, bringing pain relief, sedation or major sensations of well-being. MedicineNet notes, “Endorphins interact with the opiate receptors in the brain to reduce our perception of pain and act similarly to drugs such as morphine and codeine.” Many things can trigger endorphins, including pain, stress, exercise, massage and meditation. Sex is a potent trigger for the release of endorphins. And they are also likely associated with driving a relationship deeper in love, beyond the dopamine and other early chemical stages.
Mahoney concludes, “The benefits of love are explicit and measurable. … Some experts think it won’t be long before doctors prescribe steamy sex, romantic getaways and caring communication in addition to low-cholesterol diets and plenty of rest.”
In short, as Dr. Jon Maner of Florida State University summarized, “love binds romantic partners together for the long term and is associated with a wealth of positive relationship processes.”
But love also can exacerbate pain, he added: “The more love one feels for one’s partner the more one has to lose if the relationship ends. It’s all about protecting one’s relationship.”
What’s love got to do with it? Everything!
Next week’s article: “Foods That Fuel the Fires of Love.”