Two local healers talk brain chemistry, immune response and how Cupid plays a role
Why is it that the symbol most closely associated with Valentine’s Day—and, therefore, love—also represents the human body’s most essential organ? Why do people who’ve recently been dumped often claim to be suffering a broken heart? Could it be that falling in love, and remaining that way, could actually have physical effects on our bodies?
A recent conversation with two local healers—a psychotherapist and a neurologist—revealed intriguing evidence that indicates that love can, and often does, affect our physical health. Sometimes in the most unusual ways.
“There’s definitely a chemistry to love and attraction and the stages of love,” explained Joel Rothfeld, a local neurologist. “The early parts of love include dopamine and a chemical called phenylethylamine, which is also found in chocolate. One could say the stimulation of these pathways is beneficial and endorses feeling good.”
Phenylethylamine, according to WebMD.com, actually acts as a releasing agent for dopamine—the “feel-good” chemical associated with reward.
“Falling in love creates a chemical storm,” added Steve Flowers, a psychotherapist who specializes in stress reduction. “It releases dopamine, boosts testosterone—which is, of course, your primary sex hormone. When you see testosterone come in, and there’s sexual interaction, you get an explosion of oxytocin. The tricky thing is, we think this other person makes us feel this way, but it’s really this drug in our brain.”
Oxytocin, WebMD explains, is also known as the “love hormone” and is released by both men and women during orgasm. Some studies have linked higher levels of oxytocin to positive emotional states—optimism, good self-esteem—and lower levels to higher incidences of depression.
Among the most interesting connections the two men pointed to when discussing love and the human body was the apparent changes in brain chemistry over time. When a person has been in a relationship for many years, his or her brain actually starts to look different and react differently.
For instance, Flowers pointed to fairly recent findings—published in 2010—by researchers at Stanford University that show being in love can actually act as a powerful pain reliever. A study created a moderately painful situation for 15 individuals. While experiencing that pain, they were shown pictures of their romantic partners. In each case, the picture was proven to reduce the pain—enough to rival even cocaine.
“Brain scans are showing that over prolonged periods of time of practicing love, it profoundly changes the brain,” Flowers explained. “Studies have shown significant reductions in feelings of fear, anger, stress, anxiety, emotional and physical pain.”
Rothfeld added that with newer technologies, like functional MRIs—which are videos rather than still photographs of brain function—researchers are able to better understand how our most powerful organ works and adapts and reacts to external stimuli.
“We as humans have a very dynamic system,” Rothfeld said. “With functional MRI scans, we’re able to look at brain activation during different emotional states to better understand all the players.
“To take it a step further, now that we understand the players, we could potentially use these tools as therapies to change negative patterns.”
In fact, some of this knowledge is already being put to the test. Flowers said he’s currently working on a study that uses love and kindness as therapies for cancer patients.
“We’ve seen enormous benefits for cancer patients in regard to response to treatment, quality of life, reported measures of wellbeing,” he said, adding that he expects to officially report his findings next year.
The final chemical reaction Rothfeld and Flowers mentioned in relation to people in love was a marked decrease in stress and the hormone that’s associated with it, cortisol. That hormone is also linked to a decrease in immune function—a reason why people often get sick after a stressful event. With less cortisol, the body’s immune system is left in peak condition and is in better position to fight off illness.
Not every study of love involves its onset or lasting effects. Some take into account the lack of love on a person’s physical health.
Just look at the commonly known “widow effect,” Rothfeld said, pointing to incidences in which one-half of a long-term couple dies. Many times, particularly when it’s the man left behind, he’ll die within days or weeks of his wife’s death, even when his life expectancy, medically speaking, would be longer.
“It’s not remarkable for people to die within days for reasons medicine cannot explain,” Rothfeld said. “They’re literally dying because of the loss of love.”
Having someone or something to care for also seems to increase a person’s will to live, quality of life and, ultimately, his or her health in old age. Flowers offered the example of a convalescent home that split its ward up into two wings. In one wing, each resident was given a plant and told to care for it—to water it, make sure it got sunlight, etc. In the other, the residents were given plants but told the staff would take care of them.
“Those who had the responsibility of taking care of and loving that plant lived twice as long as those who didn’t have to worry about the plant,” Flowers said. “It shows that caring in its own right has a value to our will to live.”
So, love does indeed have an effect on the human body. Love is a pain reliever, a stress reducer, a boon to feelings of positivity. But what about the heart, the symbol of love? Where does that come into play?
Just look at men who have had heart attacks, Flowers offered. Those who return home to loving partners have been shown to outlive those without a loving partner by two times.
So, love can help literally mend a broken heart. That’s pretty romantic.
“Loving someone is one of the most enjoyable and dangerous things you can do,” Flowers summed up.