You suddenly break out into a cold sweat. Your heart starts to race, your mouth goes dry, and you feel lightheaded. Funny how the symptoms of love often mimic the symptoms of illness.
It’s not hard to see that falling in love has a strong effect on your body, but can you really be “lovesick,” and can it affect your health?
February is the month during which so many of us ponder questions of the heart, so find the answers to your questions below in our breakdown of love and how it affects our wellness.
What Happens When We Fall in Love?
Some of the most common questions about love center around why we act the way we do when we are in love and how it has such a dramatic effect on our bodies. Basically, what happens when we fall in love?
Pheromones. Science has long suggested that pheromones, “attraction chemicals” that draw us to potential suitors, play a role in how we fall in love. After all, when all types of creatures from moths to mice release chemical signals to attract mates, why wouldn’t we?
There is early research that shows that we may be influenced subconsciously by smell cues from unromantic areas like our gland-filled armpits, but the truth is, researchers have yet to isolate a human sex pheromone that can provide a scientific basis for why we are attracted to who we are beyond what we can reason about looks, personality, and compatibility.
So those perfumes and all manner of other products that claim to contain pheromones to make you more desirable? You’re probably better off trusting that biology will take care of things on its own.
Brain Chemistry. What we do know, however, is that brain chemistry alters dramatically when we fall in love, and it affects the rest of our body. It turns out the brain in love is a lot like the brain on drugs!
Brain scans have shown that the frontal cortex, the area of the brain that regulates judgment, shuts down when we fall in love. Neurologists have found that when a subject is shown a photograph of the person they love, while some areas of the brain become active, a large part of the frontal cortex becomes inactive. Scans have also shown that parts of the brain that regulate fear and negative emotions also deactivate, explaining why we may make irrational decisions and feel so giddy and carefree when we fall in love.
Other studies have shown that those in love have higher levels of dopamine, the brain chemical linked to our feelings of pleasure, pain, desire, addiction, and euphoria. This means that love has a similar effect on our brains as does taking an opioid drug like cocaine!
The elevated dopamine levels then trigger a reduction in serotonin, a hormone that helps regulate mood and appetite, and this makes us feel anxious and jittery.
And when we fall in love, our bodies release adrenaline – the same chemical released when we feel frightened – and this accounts for the racing heart, sweaty palms, and dry mouth. Blood levels of nerve growth factor (NGF) also increase, and this molecule is linked to social chemistry, accounting for the phenomenon of “love at first sight.”
All this happens in the brain in just a fifth of a second, so it’s no wonder we really do feel like we’ve been suddenly hit with Cupid’s arrow.
7 Health benefits of Being in Love
All this “love” activity triggered in the brain can have positive effects on your health, too.
Cardiovascular benefits. Being in love can improve your cardiovascular health. A study by researchers at San Diego State University and the University of Pittsburgh found that happily married women have a much lower risk of cardiovascular disease than women in high-stress relationships.
Another study by researchers at the University of North Carolina found that women who receive the most hugs from their partner have the highest levels of the hormone oxytocin, which not only promotes social bonding but has also been shown to have a powerful effect on the cardiovascular system and to lower blood pressure.
And let’s not forget, those in love make love. Sexual arousal raises the heart rate, and any activity that increases your heart rate, including sex, is good for your heart.
Helps with healing. Love heals – for real! A study by researchers at Ohio State University used a device designed to leave small blisters on the arm to allow doctors to monitor the body’s immune response at the wound sites. They then studied the rate of healing of married participants during tense discussions and during loving discussions. The results showed that the loving discussions sped up the body’s ability to heal by one day compared to rate of healing after the tense discussions. In fact, when the arguments were particularly heated, the wounds took two days longer to heal.
Boosts immune system. Not only does love help you heal, it might prevent sickness, too. Research from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that individuals who experienced positive emotions such as happiness, pleasure, and relaxation – all emotions linked to love – were less susceptible to the common cold virus than those who felt anxious, aggressive or depressed.
Another study found a link between frequency of sex and immune system strength. Subjects who reported having sex at once or twice per week had 30% higher levels of Immunoglobulin A (IgA), a key illness-fighting compound in the body, compared to those who had no sex at all.
Better brain health. Spending time with someone you love can boost long-term brain health, according to a Swedish study. Couples living together during midlife were found to have a lower risk for developing poor memory and mental functioning compared to individuals who lived alone.
Lower Stress. More love equals less stress. Stress-induced cortisol production results in suppressed immune function and more visceral fat stored around the middle, a key factor in the development of metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease. However, being in a happy, loving relationship can cause the body to produce less cortisol, according to a study by Swiss researchers.
Sex may also help reduce stress, according to another study. Participants underwent stress tests, including public speaking and verbal arithmetic, and the subjects who had engaged in sex had the lowest rise in blood pressure levels.
Helps beat cancer. Having loving relationships may also help the body ward off diseases like cancer. A study by researchers at the University of Iowa found a link between satisfying relationships and greater numbers of cancer cell-killing white blood cells in patients diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Helps you live longer. Want to live longer? Be attached! A 2004 study by the CDC found that mortality rates were the lowest in married couples. The National Longitudinal Mortality Study, which has tracked more than a million individuals since 1979, also finds that married people have fewer heart attacks, lower cancer rates, get pneumonia less frequently, and live longer than single people.
Interestingly, men seem to benefit more than women do. A European study from 2007 found that the death rate was twice as high for unmarried men over 40 than it was for married men, while the difference was minor between unmarried and married women.
Of course this may be because being in a long-term relationship makes it less likely for one to engage in risky behaviors; statistics show that married individuals drink less alcohol and use less drugs than unmarried individuals, and 70% of chronic drinkers were either divorced or separated compared to the 15% who were married.
Who’s happier? Being Married vs. Being Single
So now we come to the age-old question of who’s happier – married people or singles?
Love improves mental well-being and reduces the risk of depression. In fact, major depression is nine times higher in single men than in married men, and a woman’s risk for depression tends to decrease even more than her partner’s. Conversely, divorce or separation more than doubles the risk of suicide in men.
Marriage can benefit one’s sex life, too, although men seem to see more improvement than women in that department. Still, happy couples demonstrate an understanding that simply being together increases their happiness. The emotional connection from a healthy relationship provides a calming retreat from the stresses of the world.
The winners? Married couples!
But if you’re not married, don’t worry. This doesn’t mean that all unmarried people are doomed to be unhappy. The reality is that these benefits may also apply to those who cohabitate or those who are in a stable, long-term relationship. What’s important is the social support, emotional investment, and love both parties put into the relationship.
5 Hallmarks of a Healthy Love Relationship
And how do we ensure that our love relationships are healthy, and thus, healthful?
Honesty. Be honest. Admit to and accept responsibility for your actions. Being honest and not playing “games” will build trust and strengthen your relationship. Why lie or even bend the truth with the one you love?
Communication. Express your feelings and opinions, and don’t be afraid to disagree sometimes. Openly communicating will help to clarify issues and allow you to come to a mutually satisfying compromise. While you might expect your partner to “know” you, nobody is a mind-reader; he/she can’t make you happy if you don’t communicate your needs and wants.
Partnership. Be partners in your relationship. A true partnership means that both responsibilities and power are shared. Each person should have equal say in the relationship, as both members bring something to the table and allow the other to be happier and stronger for it. This support will only make your bond greater.
Respect. Respect one another as partners and as individuals. Remember to always treat your partner as if he/she is of value and to show your appreciation in small ways. Accept his/her thoughts, feelings, values, etc., even if they may differ from your own, and never demand that he/she change to become the person you want them to be. Listen without judgment, be emotionally affirming, and be understanding.
Intimacy. While many dismiss intimacy as being more related to lust than love, a healthy relationship is one that is intimate, emotionally and physically. Express your love in a way that is comfortable for both parties. Be respectful of your partner’s boundaries, respect one another’s privacy, and don’t pressure your partner.
The greatest takeaway from this exploration of love is that while it may make us feel funny and cloud our judgment, particularly in its early stages, loving and being loved really are major contributors to our happiness and wellness. Celebrate your love this month, and enjoy all the benefits love brings into your life!
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.