Way back in 1994, the Eagles sang “Love Will Keep Us Alive.” Who knew that they were on to something?
As a Traditional Naturopath and doctor of natural sciences, I find myself always speaking about the vital elements that are important to your health. Things like the right food, water, exercise, and natural supplements are usually my topics. But this time, in honor of Valentine’s Day, I’d like to discuss an often under appreciated and very important element of your well-being. Namely… love.
Over the last more than twelve years that I have been in practice, I’ve noticed over and over that people who are in loving relationships are healthier in general. Of course, I’ve also seen couples who became very unhealthy together, but I’ve also seen more couples than I can count who decided to turn it around and get healthy together as well. When you’re trying to improve your health it’s a lot easier to find excuses to have “cheat” days.
There is no doubt that working together as a team strengthens both of your resolves, and allows you to shore each other up when one of you has a down day. I’ve often found with these couples that their new lifestyle goes from being a chore to being something that they can do together and enjoy. And “fun” will always be more effective than a “chore!”
Ah love. Everyone is in love with love.
If it wasn’t for love then what would we write movies, songs, poems and books about? Being in love makes you feel like the King (or Queen) of the world! Suddenly all the mundane ups and downs of daily life seem smaller; more like speed bumps than obstacles. Suddenly, sitting in your living room simply watching a movie is no longer lonely, but romantic. A leisurely walk turns into something fun and memorable. Looking at the world through the lens of love just turns everything rosier.
There is no doubt that being in love makes life much easier. But did you know that it isn’t just your mood that takes a turn for the better? There are actually multiple and major health benefits that is associated with being in a loving relationship.
Researchers and scientists, many of whom have previously cried “bunk” at anything that is not based in hard science have turned their focus to the impressive and undeniable health benefits of being in a caring, loving relationship. Even to the casual observer, most people will notice that married couples live longer. That may well have been the reason that the National Longitudinal Mortality Study began their study back in 1979. Since then they have tracked more than a million people and found that married people have fewer heart attacks, have lower cancer rates, and even get sick less than single people. Perhaps a contributing factor to this is that being in a loving relationship can significantly increase the amounts of immunoglobin A; an antibody that fights off infection and disease, as shown in a 2004 study by Carl Charnetski, Phd. Or maybe it’s just because you’re happier. Six of one…
It’s no coincidence as it turns out, that when we talk about love we usually reference “hearts and flowers” because love is actually physically good for your heart. In one study, married men who reported that they “feel loved” by their wives experienced 50% less angina even if they also had other risk factors including diabetes and high blood pressure. A different study about women from the University of Pittsburgh showed a significant drop in cardiovascular disease in women as well who said that they were in a happy relationship.
It’s really no wonder that loving and feeling loved is so healthy for your heart. When you look at the risk factors that contribute to heart disease, love is a prescription for them all. I think that most people would agree that the largest contributors to cardiovascular disease are lifestyle (diet choices and being overweight), having high blood pressure, and the biggie – stress. Let’s look at these one by one:
Love & Your Lifestyle
Anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows that your lifestyle is much different when there are two of you than if you’re alone. Ask yourself this question: Do you eat as well by yourself as when you cook for two? Now I’m not talking about junk food here, I just mean “as well.” Speaking for myself, I eat much better and fuller meals when there are two of us than when I’m alone. It’s just not as fun (there’s that word again!) to cook a big beautiful meal for just me. I still eat nutritious food when my guy is traveling, but you won’t see any pictures of it on Facebook! Ever noticed at the grocery stores that the “convenience food” frozen dinners that are laden with chemicals, grains and trans-fats are often single serving? Hmmm… I guess it’s not just me!
When you’re in love your body also produces a lot more adrenaline. Adrenaline is multifaceted because not only does it give you more get up and go, which means you’re a lot more likely to walk or exercise instead of crashing on the couch, it also acts like an appetite suppressant, meaning that you’re less likely to go for the late night and sugary snacks. Many if not most people snack out of boredom, which is a lot less likely to happen if you are spending quality time with that special someone.
And speaking of get up and go, couples who work together as a team are more likely to have success in their health goals because they encourage one another. A body at rest tends to stay at rest, and some days it’s much easier to stay on the couch if there is no one there to help get your patootie off it! Working out alone gets old quick, but working out together is much more fun so you’ll do it more often. The success rate among people who are trying to quit smoking, drinking or other negative habits are much higher when done as a couple.
Love & High Blood PressureObviously better diet and more exercise will help with high blood pressure too, but a study by the State University of New York at Oswego found that just the mere fact of being in the presence of your loved one can cause a significant drop in blood pressure. Even the simple act of hugging will cause the release of a hormone called Oxytocin, which is involved in relaxation and bonding and can dramatically reduce blood pressure? According to Kathleen Light, PhD, at the University of North Carolina, women who hugged the most daily had the type of improvements in their blood pressure you would expect to see from a prescription medication. Wow! Hugs not drugs! Let’s make up a bumper sticker!
Stress (Cue the ominous music)
In my mind and through my experience, stress is the biggest contributor to the modern health problems. In fact, it is a major contributor to why women have caught up to men in the number of heart attacks suffered each year. We all have it because it surrounds us daily. Work stress, money stress, family stress, and stress to our bodies from environmental toxins… the list goes on and on. Combating it can definitely be improved as a team effort.
In the UNC study I cited above, they were quick to point out that it isn’t only sex that is a stress buster. While sex is great (and can be relationship glue) and will increase Oxytocin, which is also triggered by hugging, cuddling, and touching. Although it is not included by the study, I would also personally include laughing in that list. I don’t know about you, but laughing with my guy about something that was previously irritating me is high on my list of stress busters!
A UCLA study found that married women were 20% less likely to die from stress related causes than single women, and a whopping 100-200% decrease in stress related deaths among married men. (Note: While impressive, I find the lopsidedness of this statistic interesting. Perhaps the focus of a new study?)
Everyone knows how important sleep is to stress levels, and a comment that I often hear from people is that they don’t sleep as well when their partner is away. While you could attribute this to mere habit, UNC may disagree. In another study they tested the cortisol levels in cohabiting couples both before and after a four to seven day separation. Cortisol is a stress hormone that in increased quantities can elevate blood sugar, decrease bone formation and suppress the immune system. In their study they found that all the couples involved had higher cortisol levels and resultant worse sleep patterns simply from being separated for that short time.
You know it. You can feel it. Being in a loving relationship not only feels good, it’s good for your health. But I can hear some of you out there muttering “Well sure. That’s all well and good, but I’m not currently in a caring relationship. So what about me”? I hear you. It may not be your end goal, but for now your next loving relationship may not be found at your next social gathering. It might be that it’s waiting for you at your local animal shelter.
It’s not just people that can create loving relationships in your life. Loving and being loved by an animal has also shown to have similar benefits in your life and well being. As many studies have shown, people exhibit less depression, as well as lowered rates of disease and heart problems when they are strongly attached to a pet.
Something as innocuous as playing with your dog or watching your cat chase a beam of red light can actually elevate your levels of serotonin and dopamine which are nerve transmitters that not only have calming and pleasurable effects, but can help you sleep and heal better. Think of them as furry anti-depressants…
Strangely enough as I was writing this, one of my dogs came in and laid his head on my knee. Just taking a break and looking down at his brown eyes and ever wagging tail caused me to instantly relax. My shoulders came down and I started to breathe more deeply. I know that coming home from a hard day and having my doggies waiting for me with happy faces and wagging tails never ceases to raise my mood.
Living in stress mode can raise the levels of harmful chemicals like cortisol and norepinephrine, which can negatively affect plaque build up in your arteries and suppress your immune system. Playing with and petting your fur babies, or taking them for a walk can give you the same or very similar benefits to that of hugging your partner because of these same increased levels of serotonin and dopamine. Pets may not be able to take you out to a romantic dinner, but a lot of the health benefits of heart health, lower blood pressure, and quicker recovery from illness are the same. They also won’t hog the remote control, so there are definite up sides.
Numerous studies have also shown that pets will help you live longer. The University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine showed that even Alzheimer’s patients had fewer outbursts and were less anxious if there were pets in the home. Just the simple act of walking and feeding a pet, which elderly people are more than capable of doing, had a very positive effect. I saw this for myself when a charity I was working with brought some shelter dogs to a local nursing home. The residents there were overjoyed to talk and cuddle with the dogs, but I witnessed something incredible. I noticed a woman who previously seemed to be in a daze, after a few minutes just couldn’t resist the onslaught by one of the fur-babies. She started petting the wiggly puppy that had picked her out and she smiled. After petting the dog for a few minutes, she picked it up and put it in her lap and said to the nearby nurse, “I think this puppy needs some water. Will you get him some water?” The nurse nearly jumped out of her skin, and hurried to comply. I asked her later what had startled her so much and she told me that the woman; currently trying not to get her face licked, had not spoken a single word in months. There is little magic in this world that compares to the magic of a wiggly puppy.
There is also the, ahem, idea that your current furry friend may be just the trick to find you your next fur-less friend. Animals are a great ice breaker for conversations. A lot of people who would never go up and start a conversation with a stranger will easily come up to pet your dog. From there you have to know the dogs name, what breed it is, if it’s “a good dog,” what your name is, and on and on, and voila! You’re having a conversation with someone new. And you already know they’re a pet lover so one point for the newcomer.
My dogs are shelter pups, so it has been said that I “saved” them. But I will tell you this; they give me much more than I give them. They “save” me each and every day, a thousand times over. Think about it.
Love not only feels good, it is good. It’s good for your outlook, your heart, your blood pressure and your longevity. Love makes the world go ‘round. Maybe love is not all you need, but it sure is a good start.
My advice? If you love someone, even your dog or cat, go and tell them. Go right now. Give them one of those big long hugs that we love and never seem to have time for, and look into their eyes and tell them you love them. Be loving and grateful to them because not only are they making you happy, they’re keeping you healthy.
Love will keep us alive…