Falling in love can make the world seem a better place — but it can also have a major impact on your health. A wealth of new research has found that romance can help improve a range of conditions, from high blood pressure to pain and allergic reactions.
Falling in love is the result of activity in 12 areas of the brain working together, according to researchers at the University of Western Virginia in California. They say the first changes in brain activity begin within one-fifth of a second of becoming smitten.
There is a surge of chemicals such as dopamine, which helps to regulate emotional responses, and oxytocin, the ‘cuddle hormone’ that induces feelings of trust and reduces anxiety.
This may explain why a study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that people in love tend to have lower blood pressure. It is thought hormones released by touch are likely to play a role — pressure centres in the skin are in contact with the brain through the vagus nerve, which runs down the body.
One theory is that stimulation of the vagus triggers an increase in oxytocin.
“Important life events, such as falling in love, have profound physiological effects as well as emotional ones,” says Professor Sir Cary Cooper, a psychologist at the University of Manchester.
“The immune system, hormones and many other factors are likely to be involved.”
Falling in love can also have an effect on our ability to fight off infections. Research from a study of 50 women found that those who fell in love during the two-year study had genetic changes linked to higher concentrations of compounds that attack viruses, reported the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
It is thought that altered levels of dopamine, which research suggests links the nervous and immune systems, may be involved.
Romance can improve your pain threshold, too. Researchers at Stanford University in California used brain scans to assess responses to pain — in the form of a hot probe on the hand — while people looked at photos. When they looked at a picture of their loved one, self-reported pain dropped by 40 per cent. There was no such drop with pictures of an acquaintance.
Just looking at a loved one may increase production of dopamine, which triggers the release of natural painkillers. ‘When patients are doing markedly better and we find out they are in a new passionate relationship, it may be nothing to do with the medication,’ the researchers reported in the journal PLOS in 2010.
Then there are the benefits of kissing. A 2006 study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research found that 30 minutes of kissing reduced the production of histamine — a chemical pumped out in response to an allergen — which triggers allergy symptoms.
Couples who kiss each other the most have lower levels of cholesterol. A 2013 study, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, found that couples told to increase the time they spent kissing over six weeks had improved cholesterol levels.
One theory is that during a kiss there may be an exchange of sebum, an oily substance secreted by the skin, which may reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, so lowering cholesterol.
Meanwhile, hugging your loved one can lower blood pressure and reduce heart rate due to increased levels of oxytocin, according to a study in the journal Comprehensive Psychology.
Another study at the University of California showed that people who were regularly hugged by their partner were less likely to be depressed or anxious.