February brings us Valentine’s Day, a celebration first linked with love during the Middle Ages. Today, it is a popular boon to florists, greeting card retailers and restaurant owners, but it is not a holiday that many of us would associate with health. Well, think again! As it turns out, love can be as essential to good health as exercise and vitamins.
Before we get into the benefits of love, let’s make a distinction: We are not talking about a steamy, one night stand, is he ever going to call me back scenario here. The roller coaster ride that is commonly portrayed as love in the media and among wandering singles falls more accurately into the category of infatuation or lust. When it comes to love and your health, we are talking about the real thing — a long-term partnership that involves trust and commitment.
Does this mean that those of us who are single are doomed to a life of pestulance and decay? Oh, please! If that were true, few humans would live past their 30s. The fact is, the love that friends feel for each other and the connections that family, community and compassion-based churches extend to us can be just as important. It isn’t your marital status as much as it is your support system. Life is easier — and your health is better — when there’s someone to share it with.
So, what’s love got to do with it? Let me count the ways:
1) Love can decrease stress levels and lower blood pressure. Research has found that happily married couples have lower blood pressure levels than singles. Ironically, couples in dysfunctional relationships have higher blood pressure than both groups combined. A bond with a loving friend can supply similar protection. People who profess to have the support of a trusted confidant have lower blood pressure than the loners, and those who lived in social isolation showed a 14.4 point rise in blood pressure over their more gregarious peers.
2) Love can help keep you from catching the flu. In addition to being the best indoor sport around, having sex at least once a week can boost your essential immune cells as much as 30%. Good news for the infatuated and lust-driven among us! Orgasm increases the body’s levels of IgA, the antibody that fights off illnesses. It also increases your levels of oxytocin, a hormone that increases the relaxation response and subsequently, counterbalances the nasty depletion that stress and cortisol cause to your immune system. But a word of warning for those guys who jump out of bed and run: It’s not just the orgasm that does it. Physical closeness and time spent cuddling are essential to the protective benefits.
3) People with love in their life are less depressed. Married men and women have less likelihood of developing any form of mental illness; the most striking difference is in the rate of depression. In fact, if you’re contemplating divorce, this may be a reason to reconsider: the World Health Organization has concluded that single and divorced people have a two to four times greater rate of depression than do couples. The consequences of dissolution and separation come to more than the painful legal fees.
4) Love helps you live longer. They may joke that it only seems longer, but married men actually do live longer than bachelors; the mortality rate for single men can be up to 250% greater than that of their coupled counterparts. Wives tend to discourage drinking, smoking and unnecessary risk-taking, and also improve household nutrition. Married men are half as likely to have a heart attack, and both married men and women have drastically lower rates of diabetes, Alzheimer’s and lung disease. The unfortunate truth is that loneliness has twice the impact on early death as obesity, and is as bad for your health as smoking.
Love is not just for passionate couples and Victorian heroines with heaving cleavage. We truly need each other. The love and caring we give has a real value and when we hurt each other, those harsh words can literally wound us. So the next time you consider making a cutting remark, don’t. Your forbearance may help prevent that nasty cold that’s going around.
This Valentine’s Day, don’t worry if you can’t afford diamonds and the Ritz. The most important and valuable,gift you can give is your love.