When Cupid’s magic arrow strikes, it can put a song in your heart and a spring in your step.
Now, science is finding that love has an even deeper impact on your emotional and physical well-being.
Even better, the benefits of love are not limited to amour. You can generate the same boon through close friendships, or simply by treating yourself in a more loving way.
To celebrate Valentine’s Day, here are five ways love helps your health.
1. Lowers blood pressure.
Valentine’s Day is the holiday of the heart. Love protects this most vital of organs by lowering blood pressure.
A Brigham Young University study found that on average, people in marriages had blood pressure readings 4 points lower than those of both singles and unhappily married couples.
2. Improves mood and boosts pain tolerance.
Snuggling up to the one you love has benefits that go far beyond basic pair bonding, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina.
They found that couples who hug, hold hands and sit close together tend to have higher levels of the hormone oxytocin.
Oxytocin has a powerful effect on your sense of well-being, says Dr. Cynthia Thaik, a Los Angeles-based cardiologist and author of “Your Vibrant Heart: Restoring Health, Strength, and Spirit from the Body’s Core.”
“It’s called the ‘love hormone,'” Thaik says. “It’s such a great antidote to stress.”
The UNC researchers found that increased oxytocin can lead to improved mood and greater tolerance to pain.
3. Makes you less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.
People who are married are less likely to smoke, drink heavily or be physically inactive, according to a 2004 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Loving relationships help prevent you from falling prey to substance abuse, says Tammy Tilson, a clinical social worker and therapist with Positive Outlook Sexual Counseling in Towson, Maryland and founder of The MatchPro matchmaking service.
That is because strong connections with other people create bonds and feelings that allow you to soothe yourself in the face of life’s challenges.
“You’re less likely to get involved in in self-destructive behaviors,” she said. “You don’t feel you need to resort to drugs or gambling or sex addictions.”
4. Improves resistance to illness
Thaik says some studies have found that people in loving relationships are:
- At lower risk for diseases such as diabetes and depression
- Less prone to have increased levels of inflammation
- More likely to have stronger overall immune systems
One study at Ohio State University in Columbus asked married couples to subject themselves to a minor blistering effect on their skin created by a suction device.
Those who engaged in a supportive, 30-minute conversation saw their blistering heal at least 24 hours earlier than couples who conversed about an area of disagreement.
5. Lengthens life.
A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services analysis of recent research states it simply and clearly: “The pattern that married people live longer has been found for more than 100 years and across many countries.”
The HHS analysis does note that it remains unclear why this is true, and that it is possible that healthier people choose to marry than unhealthy people.
How to spread the love
Perhaps that best part of this news is that you do not need to be married to get many of the health benefits associated with love.
“I don’t want people to think of love as just romantic love,” Thaik says. She adds that self-love – in the form of self-care, self-respect and avoiding negative self-talk – provides many of the same benefits as romantic love.
“It’s about really paying attention to the thoughts and words that we speak toward ourselves,” she says. “It’s having that gentle, kind, compassionate approach.”
Valentine’s Day is also the perfect time to work on sending more loving messages to those close to you. For example, Thaik encourages you to simply smile at those you love “and see their expression change.”
Other ways to help someone feel more loved include small gestures such as touching a hand or rubbing a shoulder. Positive words – such as expressing gratitude for someone or telling them you are proud of them – also can have a big impact, Thaik says.
“It’s all about the little things,” she says.
Tilson also emphasizes the need to think beyond ourselves this Valentine’s Day.
“People really get caught up in their own needs,” she says. “It’s about thinking about the other person, and remembering that when we love someone, we receive some of that back.”