With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, many people will be thinking about ways in which they can make their partners feel cherished and loved - be it sentiments, gifts or perhaps a romantic meal or trip somewhere special.
But what precise benefits does loving a partner or a spouse have on our health? How is love advantageous to us physically and mentally? We asked Dr Daniel Atkinson, Clinical Lead at Treated.com, and decided to dive in head first.
Hugging reduces blood pressure
Research has shown that hugging can lower blood pressure, lower heart rate and result in smaller increases in heart rate.
In one study, couples who held hands for a 10 minute period and then hugged for 20 seconds elicited healthier responses to stressful situations, such as public speaking. Their blood pressure, heart rates and increases in heart rate were all reduced as compared to couples who took rest without touching each other*.
Further analysis at the University of Carolina supports these findings**. A research team recruited 59 women aged between 20 - 49 who had been living with a spouse or monogamous partner for a minimum of six months.
The women were instructed to sit with their partners and discuss a time when they felt especially close to one another, followed by a romantically-led video for five minutes, and another two minutes talking, closing with a 20-second hug.
Having hugged their partners, the women recorded a speech regarding a recent stressful incident. Blood pressure, heart rate and oxytocin levels (a hormone connected to sexual arousal, recognition, trust, anxiety and mother–infant bonding) were all assessed at each stage of the experiment.
The results showed that women had higher oxytocin levels and lower blood pressure during the stressful task, having hugged their partners and sat with them to discuss a time in which they felt particularly bonded to each other. Women who reported that they got more hugs from their partners had greater levels of oxytocin in general, at all points of the testing.
Such findings may help to account for why people who receive support emotionally from a partner or spouse have a lower chance of dying from heart disease.
‘The health benefits of hugging are especially rooted in trust,’ comments Dr Atkinson.
‘It’s trust between partners and spouses that really gives rise to elevated oxytocin levels in the body, and these heightened hormones make us feel close to our loved ones and bring us security.’
Love and support reduces angina and ulcer risks
A study including 10,000 men discovered that those who felt that their spouses ‘loved and supported’ them had a smaller risk of developing angina. This was the case even in spite of additional risk factors, such as age and increased blood pressure***.
‘We know that loneliness and feelings of isolation can increase our stress levels, and have a detrimental effect on our health,’ notes Dr Atkinson.
‘Knowing that our partners are there for us and that they care for us can counteract this massively.’
A further study, this time consisting of 8,000 men**** revealed that it was more likely that the participants would get a duodenal ulcer if they experienced family problems, didn’t feel loved or supported by their spouses, or if they didn’t react if their colleagues upset them, and instead repressed their emotions.
Love makes us happier, which makes us healthier
The Grant Study, the longest study on happiness ever conducted, has discovered that positive relationships make us happier and healthier, and that people who are in unhappy relationships or are lonely are more likely to experience pain, dissatisfaction and maintain unhealthy lifestyles.
To capture the ever-changing nature and evolution of happiness, Harvard researchers have followed 724 men over a 75 year period, asking them how they have coped with every facet of their lives on an annual basis, utilising interviews, questionnaires, brain scans, blood tests, medical records and conversations with the mens’ families.
We sleep better alongside a loving partner
People who feel that they have a responsive partner sleep better alongside them, a Turkish study has established.
The research, consisting of close to 700 people aged from 35 to 86 who were married or living together, discovered that there was a correlation between how responsive someone perceived their partner to be in terms of addressing their needs, and how well they slept.
It’s understood that people who feel that their partners care about them are less inclined to be anxious or depressed, which can impact on how much ‘restorative sleep’ we get. In order to get ‘restorative sleep’, it’s important that we feel safe, secure and protected, in a non-threatening environment.
While we depend on our parents to fulfil these criteria as children, it’s our romantic partners who help to give us these reassurances as adults.
Love releases dopamine in the brain
Large amounts of dopamine (a neurotransmitter in the body that gives rise to feelings of pleasure) and norepinephrine (a stress hormone) are released when we’re ‘in love’ with someone, and these chemicals produce a sense of giddiness and euphoria.
These levels of exhilaration and excitement have shown up in scans of the brain, with the primary reward centres firing extremely intensely when people look at a photo of someone they’re very attracted to, as compared to a photo of someone they feel indifferent towards.
‘An increased heart rate, sweaty palms, a reddening of the cheeks and sensations of desire can all be triggered in the form of dopamine, the brain’s reward transmitting hormone, when we’re falling or have fallen for someone,’ explains Dr Atkinson.
You can have too much of a good thing, however; excessive dopamine can serve as a foundation for unhealthy dependencies on our partners emotionally.
* Behavioural Medicine. Warm partner contact is related to lower cardiovascular reactivity. 2003.
** Harvard Medical School. In brief: Hugs heartfelt in more ways than one. 2014.
*** American Journal of Medicine. Angina pectoris among 10,000 men. II. Psychosocial and other risk factors as evidenced by a multivariate analysis of a five-year incidence study. 1976.
**** American Journal of Epidemiology.The importance of biopsychosocial factors in the development of duodenal ulcer in a cohort of middle-aged men.1992.