Love is in the air! And it’s good medicine!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

This is the day when the world celebrates love, and as a practicing physician for 50 years, I’m here to tell you that love not only feels good, it also is great for your health. And it’s not just romantic love that delivers positive physiological effects. Our love for children, grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, teammates, classmates, co-workers and colleagues all yield health benefits, as do close relationships with pets, landscapes, and environments. Anything you love benefits you. That’s because humans are evolutionarily wired for community and connection, making good relationships among our most rewarding experiences.

The love/health connection begins in the womb, where the mother’s physical and emotional state affects the baby’s development. Oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone,” released during pregnancy, creates feelings of connectedness between mother and child, increases the strength and frequency of uterine contractions during labor, helps shrink the uterus after delivery, and also promotes bonding between the mother and child. This interaction also causes the infant’s own oxytocin levels to increase. In fathers, too, oxytocin—and another hormone, vasopressin—create feelings of bondedness and connection. Fathers who received a dose of oxytocin via a nasal spray played more closely with their 5-month-old babies than dads who didn’t. This connectedness doesn’t simply feel good, early parental closeness stimulates the growth of the child’s hippocampus, the region of the brain associated with learning, memory, and emotional regulation. Evolution has shaped us to desire closeness because it’s good for our development and survival!

In childhood, too, early friendships are essential for the development of social skills, empathy, reciprocity, cooperation and teamwork. Friendships also help children understand themselves and the ways in which they differ from others. Positive peer relationships also help children develop a sense of self-worth. All of these benefits contribute to a child feeling confident, supported, and able to navigate her world, which also means that they lower the child’s stress and boost her happiness. Children with close and happy friendships have higher self-esteem, are less lonely, better able to cope with stresses and life’s normal transitions. They are also less victimized by peers.

As we mature through adolescence, we begin to seek out romantic love, which, ideally, leads to stable, long-term partnerships. Marriages are probably the most-studied of human relationships and the research shows that they are loaded with health benefits, including:

The benefits of touch alone are profound. As with mother-child bonding, human touch increases oxytocin levels, as well as trigger release of other “pleasure hormones,” dopamine and serotonin. These hormones reduce stress and anxiety, expand optimism and a positive outlook, and boost immune system functioning.

However, it’s not marriage itself that provides the benefits. It’s the connectedness and support a marriage can provide. People in stressful, unhappy marriages may be worse off than a single person who is surrounded by supportive and caring friends, family, and loved ones.

That’s why you don’t need to put all your eggs in the romantic love basket, or despair if you’re single. Friendships, too, improve mental health, prevent isolation, loneliness and depression, and protect against disease, all of which help you live a longer, happier life.

For example, people with a good friendship support network tend to enjoy:

Adult friendships help to:

  • Increase your sense of belonging and purpose. That’s because friends let us know that we are important to them. As the saying goes, “To the world you may just be one person, but to one person you may be the world.”
  • Reduce your stress. Time spent with friends encourages your body to produce less of the stress hormone, cortisol, allowing your body to return to a state of calm.
  • Improve your self-confidence and self-worth by offering praise, reassurance, and a hand to hold when we’re feeling unsure. Individuals who support each other in this way can develop a lifetime of gratifying companionship.
  • Help you cope with traumas, such as divorce, serious illness, job loss, or the death of a loved one
  • Encourage you to change or avoid unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as smoking, excessive drinking, or lack of exercise
  • Live longer than their peers with fewer connections.

These are among the reasons I’m so happy to see Valentine’s Day promoted as an opportunity to celebrate our Galentines and Palentines, as well as our romantic partners. They’re all important to our mental, emotional, and physical health.

Even our relationships with pets can be health-boosting and life-preserving. Studies have shown that the bond between people and their pets is linked to:

  • Decreased blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and symptoms of PTSD, and
  • Increased opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities; better cognitive function in older adults; and more opportunities to socialize.

Similarly, our feelings of connectedness to the environment in which we live—and to our larger, shared environment—can benefit us in the short-term by reducing stress and boosting our mental health and immune systems. These feelings can also benefit our health in the long-term, to the extent that we prioritize the protection of clean water and air, healthy forests, and life-sustaining ecosystems.

So, celebrate all of the love in your life this Valentine’s Day! It not only feels good, it’s an essential part of #ModernWellness!

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