What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Love…it’s more than just a “feeling” – it’s a bona fide health-booster

Love. It’s been defined, re-defined, and debated for ages. Love itself is a fluid term, a concept that transcends time and is difficult to wrap words around, though many a poet and author has tried.

Everyone wants it, and hopefully, most of us will experience it at some point during our lives. Love has been thought of in a variety of ways – from a profound, strong feeling of affection, to the ultimate representation of the best of human virtues – kindness, compassion, concern, and affection.

And now, with a stronger understanding of the biology and chemistry of love, science is starting to acknowledge that there are health benefits associated with love, too. Many mental health practitioners also seek to help their patients understand the positive impact maintaining loving relationships may have on their mental health.

In the 2001 book A General Theory of Love, psychiatry professors Thomas Lewis, MD, Fari Amini, MD and Richard Lannon, MD, concede that the nature of “love” isn’t easy to define, saying, “…it has an intrinsic order, an architecture that can be detected, excavated, and explored.”

Love isn’t just a “feeling”; it’s something much more.

Love isn’t just a “feeling”; it’s something much more. The authors write, “From the beginning of the twentieth century to its end, influential accounts of love included no biology.”

Moreover, “Our nervous systems are not separate or self-contained; beginning in earliest childhood, the areas of our brain identified as the limbic system (hippocampus, amygdala, anterior thalamic nuclei, and limbic cortex) is affected by those closest to us (limbic resonance) and synchronizes with them (limbic regulation) in a way that has profound implications for personality and lifelong emotional health.”

So, in real terms, what can “love” do for you? Here are just a few of the positive effects love can have on your physical and mental health.

In a study of 10,000 men, those who felt “loved and supported” by their partner enjoyed a lower risk of angina – even if they had other risk factors such as being older. In contrast, another study of 8,000 men found that there was a higher chance of them getting a duodenal ulcer if they suffered family discord and/or didn’t feel loved and supported by their wife.

Even hugging someone can lower blood pressure and decrease heart rate. Researchers at Ohio State University found that hugging and physical touch becomes more important as we age. “The older you are, the more fragile you are physically, so contact becomes increasingly important for good health,” explains psychologist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser.

You don’t have to have a significant other to experience the power of love. Research has shown that whether it’s between loving partners, parents and children, or even between close friends, affection can help your brain, heart, and other body systems. Physical contact affects oxytocin, the hormone that makes us feel good when we’re close to family and other loved ones – even pets.

British psychiatrist John Bowlby, MD, perhaps best known for his influential work in the area of developmental science, demonstrated the critical importance of the secure relationship on the development of adaptiveness and coping capacity.

And of course, the ability to cope with and manage stress is a protective factor against mental illness. For mental health professionals, even encouraging patients to be involved in loving, stable and supportive relationships may aid in their recovery from common mental health illnesses.

“Where there is love, there is life.”

-Mahatma Gandhi

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