Love is all you need and all there is, revered artists have said; it’s what makes the world go ’round. “Where there is love there is life,” was Mahatma Gandhi’s take. Love is more than patient and kind: it can also do wonders for your heart and brain health.
Be still, my beating heart
Falling in love can make the heart go pitter-patter. It turns out that love literally does the heart good.
For starters, being in love tends to decrease the body’s stress response, which in turn can lower blood pressure. Blood pressure may respond to calmness and peace, feelings that often accompany loving relationships.
There’s more research to support love’s positive effect on blood pressure. Happily married men and women scored lower on 24-hour blood pressure readings, compared to unwed adults, according to a study published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine, while those who were unhappily married had the highest blood pressure of all. The same study found that blood pressure of the blissfully wed dropped more during sleep than it did in singles.
And an older study found that women who received frequent hugs from their partner had lower resting blood pressure and heart rates than those who reported fewer hugs.
What’s more, marriage or cohabitation has been shown to reduce the risk for fatal and nonfatal heart attacks in men and women of all ages. In people who do go on to develop heart problems, those who are married or cohabitating are more likely to have better outcomes than those who aren’t.
It’s not just romantic love that can boost heart health. Loving relationships with friends and family can also have cardiovascular benefits. Researchers have found that people who have had cardiac bypass surgery and who have strong social support have better recovery and survival rates than those without.
Being surrounded by people who love you, whether a spouse, sibling, or friend, can make you more likely to follow medical advice, get exercise, and play an active role in your care, all of which improve recovery.
This is also why any fitness trainer will recommend joining up with a friend or partner to stay committed to working out: having someone you care about to count on can increase your own accountability and make activities that much more fun.
Love on the brain
When people first fall in love, they might find themselves daydreaming about the object of their affection. It’s not just all in their heads. Love can actually benefit our brain.
Falling in love causes the body to release a flood of feel-good chemicals, including dopamine, which triggers a sense of euphoria. In those early lovey-dovey stages, endorphins, vasopressin, and oxytocin rise, contributing to an overall sense of well-being and security.
Love also affects negative emotions by deactivating the neural pathway responsible for negative emotions, such as fear and social judgment.
As the initial intense excitement of love fades over time, and people start feeling a deeper sense of contentment, brain areas that trigger more complex cognitive functions kick in. This can lead to positive effects such as pain suppression, improved memory, and greater creativity.
Neuroscientist Stephanie Cacioppo, author of Wired for Love: A Neuroscientist’s Journey Through Romance, Loss and the Essence of Human -Connection (Flatiron Books, 2022), has described love as “a superpower that makes the brain thrive.”
In the same ways that love in any form enhances heart health, all types of love improve brain health: It could be the love of friends, family, or even a sports team. Many studies have shown that supportive, loving relationships can be linked to higher self-esteem and reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. Cacioppo maintains that love is a biological necessity.
Love foods for health
There’s a reason chocolate, red wine, and strawberries are so popular on Valentine’s Day: these so-called love foods go hand in hand with romance. They may also positively affect the heart and brain.
Known as “the food of the gods,” chocolate, which is made from the fruit of cacao trees, contains small amounts of a psychoactive chemical called anandamide. The brain-stimulating neurotransmitter takes its name from the Sanskrit word ananda, meaning “joy, bliss, delight.” The flavonoids in dark chocolate can stimulate the lining of arteries, producing nitric oxide and ultimately reducing blood pressure.
Perfect for February 14, juicy strawberries burst with more than flavor. The heart-shaped food (a member of the rose family) may help reduce the risk of heart attack because of anthocyanins, which are flavonoids that give strawberries their bright red hue. Research suggests that strawberries may improve cognitive and memory function; they may also help prevent age-related neurodegeneration and resulting changes in cognitive and motor function.
Some research has suggested that, in moderation, red wine could be heart healthy. The antioxidants in wine may help prevent coronary artery disease, which leads to heart attacks. The polyphenol resveratrol might help prevent damage to blood vessels, reduce low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (the bad cholesterol), and prevent blood clots.