No other organ in the human body can measure up to the heart’s social reputation. References to the heart paint our pop culture — sonnets (“How do I love thee?”), songs (“My Heart Will Go On,” “Hungry Heart”), everyday idioms (“heart of gold,” “broken heart”). Most of the heart’s fame, of course, comes from its connection to good old L-O-V-E.
So it’s a bit of scientific serendipity that the act of loving another — be it your mom, your spouse, your pup, your BFF — actually improves your heart health. Read on to find out how and why a little lovin’ helps your ticker.
Spending Time With a Loved One Lowers Blood Pressure
Not like you need another excuse to veg out with your best friend or cozy up with your significant other, but here’s one anyway. A study in the journalPsychosomatic Medicine found that people who spent time with their romantic partners experienced a greater dip in blood pressure than those who hung out with a stranger.
Researchers correlated the blood pressure drop to sweet silence — less talking and more “perceived emotional support,” like the kind you would get from someone who knows you really well, so you could easily experience the same benefits from hanging out with your partner in crime as you would with a marital partner.
Your Heart Gets a Workout When it Goes Pitter-Patter
When you lock eyes with the person who makes your heart race — whether it’s a new crush or the love of your life — your brain releases hormones such as dopamine, adrenaline, and norepinephrine, which make your heart beat faster and stronger.
These short-lived spikes can train your heart to pump blood more efficiently, similar to the way aerobic exercise would (though to a lesser extent, of course). Yep, you still need to hit the treadmill no matter how much love you have in your life.
Hugs Are Good for the Heart
Could a hug a day keep the doctor away? When you partake in a warm embrace with someone you love (like a parent, child, or spouse), your body releases oxytocin, the feel-good hormone, which has the power to reduce stress hormones and lower blood pressure, according to research from the University of North Carolina.
Laughter Makes Your Blood Flow More Freely
Have you had a good laugh yet today? Call up a good friend or family member, stat! Recent research from the University Of Maryland School of Medicine presented at the 2011 European Society of Cardiology (ESC) annual conference found a link between mental stress and the narrowing of blood vessels, which can restrict blood flow and lead to atherosclerosis. Laughter, however, had the opposite effect. So get the pals you love most together for a good chuckle more often.
For the study, participants watched segments of a funny movie, like “There’s Something About Mary” on one day and a stressful movie such as “Saving Private Ryan” on another day. The stressful film caused vasoconstriction, or narrowing of the blood vessels, while the comedy caused the vessels to expand.
“The magnitude of change we saw in the endothelium [blood vessel lining] after laughing was consistent and similar to the benefit we might see with aerobic exercise or statin use,” Michael Miller MD, a professor of medicine and lead investigator, said in a release from the ESC.
Feeling love is one thing, but writing about it appears to be a completely different way of reaping the health benefits. In two randomized, controlled trials published inHuman Communication Research, healthy college students who spent 20 minutes writing about their affection for loved ones (friends, relatives, and/or romantic partners) experienced significant drops in total cholesterol (the mean cholesterol levels reduced from 170 mg/dL to 159 mg/dL), while students in the control group, who wrote about random topics, did not. Try it out!
A Positive Attitude Reduces Heart Attack Risk
Research published in the European Heart Journal shows that having a positive outlook on life can protect against cardiovascular disease.
The researchers defined “positive affect” as feeling joy, happiness, excitement, enthusiasm, and contentment, all of which may stem from having people you love in your life. Researchers measured each participant’s level of positive affect based on a 12-minute in-person interview and checked health records over the following 10 years to look for incidences of cardiovascular disease.
They found that people who scored even a single point higher for positive affect had a 22 perfect lower risk for cardiovascular disease. They also found that those with higher positive affect were more likely to be female, less likely to smoke, had lower levels of total cholesterol, and lower levels of hostility and anxiousness, suggesting that a positive attitude contributes to better health overall, according to the study.
Holding Hands Calms Nerves
Holding hands with someone you love has a calming effect on the body, according to a study published inPsychological Science.
Researchers recruited happily married couples and placed each woman in an M.R.I. scanner, preparing her to feel a mild shock to the ankle. Of course, the women were anxious. But feeling their husbands’ hands (the husbands reached into the scanners) reduced the women’s brain activity associated with anticipating pain. The study also found that a stranger’s touch provided comfort, but less so than a spouse.
High stress and anxiety are linked to high blood pressure, increased heart rate, and other factors that can contribute to heart disease, such as weight gain. In the stresses and worries of everyday life, this research lends new meaning to the phrase “helping hand.”
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