Love Helps Healing, Science Says
Birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love
— Ella Fitzgerald, “Let’s Do It”
Everyone knows love and romance makes you feel good, happy and flush with well-being…but as it turns out, science says love just might actually be really, really good for you.
Oxytocin is often called the “love hormone,” and it does a variety of things, including making a person feel good.
“Oxytocin is a hormone released from the posterior pituitary gland in the brain. It is mostly known for inducing labor,” explained Sheila Chhutani, M.D., M.B.A., an OB/GYN and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas.
“The synthetic form, Pitocin, is often given to pregnant women to augment or induce their labor,” she added. “It also helps with the letdown of milk for breastfeeding women. It is thought to help with the bonding of mother and child during the breastfeeding process.”
Chhutani says oxytocin is also often credited with another result as well.
“It is also known as the ‘love’ hormone in that it has positive effects on prosocial behavior and can decrease fear and anxiety,” she said. “It is theorized to have anti-depressant effects as well. It inhibits the release of cortisol.”
Kinsey Institute Director Sue Carter, Ph.D., studied the effects of oxytocin both at the institute and as the co-director of the Brain Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research led to the discovery that almost every mammal experiences bonding and relationships that oxytocin is credited with helping to achieve. More importantly, oxytocin is responsible for those bonded relationships — whether they be mice, birds or humans.
In an interview in Forbes magazine, Carter said that before her research, it was believed that oxytocin was only produced by females.
“Boy were we wrong,” she said, adding that research has shown that oxytocin can help with things like strokes, high blood pressure, heart disease and more.
In fact, Carter said researchers at MIT are now finding that probiotics may not work if oxytocin is not present. Researchers at the Kinsey Institute and Ohio State University also found that individuals with high levels of oxytocin healed faster from wounds and had more positive interactions with a spouse.
Researchers at the University of Montreal found that when they put stem cells in a petri dish with oxytocin, they joined together and turned into the muscle cells that make up the heart, and then began to beat — meaning oxytocin could possibly even heal the heart.
According to the National Institutes of Health, oxytocin can even make us feel good when we’re close to family and loved ones — even pets.
“It does this by acting through what scientists call the dopamine reward system,” the agency explained. “Dopamine is a brain chemical that plays a crucial part in how we perceive pleasure.”
A team of scientists led by Kathleen Light at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studied couples and found that those with positive relationships with their partner had higher levels of oxytocin in their blood.
Strong, satisfying relationships have also been found to be just as important to the survival rate of coronary bypass surgery as traditional risk factors like smoking and obesity.
Almost everyone has some level of oxytocin in their system, but how much, researchers say, seems to be largely hereditary. Levels rise with childbirth and lactation; however, research has also revealed that almost everyone can have a “burst” of oxytocin after simply holding an infant or interacting with a child.
“Physical contact increases oxytocin levels because it helps with bonding and social relationships,” Chhutani said.
In addition to the foregoing, research has found oxytocin levels can be boosted by a variety of actions, including expressing gratitude, exercising, getting a massage, giving a hug and getting a dog.
However, while love may heal, it’s only a piece of the puzzle when it comes to overall wellness, Chhutani cautioned.
“Being in a healthy relationship is not a substitute for having healthy habits,” she said. “It will enhance the effects of healthy habits, but not replace them.”
So tonight, go get those hugs in when you get home, but then head outside for a family walk — your heart will thank you in more ways than one.