February 15, 2010 - February is heart month as well as Valentines Day, thereby reminding us of the important connection between our physical and emotional health and the different types of love in our everyday lives. People in love or who have lived in a loving relationship are generally healthier than those who are not. People who feel they were loved by their parents also seem to have fewer illnesses and better prognoses in later life, according to a 35 year follow-up of Harvard undergraduates. Obviously, there are all sorts of relationships described as love, ranging from romantic to parental to professional friendships among colleagues.
As has been proven many times, there is a complex and comprehensive link between the mind and body. The scientific base for this relationship is still being explored. However, the preponderance of evidence so far points to an area in the deepest portion of the brain which has evolved over eons as being the master of the neuroendocrine system. We'll explore this further. Initially, people who understood quickly or intuitively what a threat was, or what an opportunity was, had an advantage over those who were clueless.
Thus there are biological reasons why people who are optimistic, positive, and mentally at peace enjoy better health than those who are pessimistic, negative, and troubled.
Love is not a subject ordinarily discussed by physicians who, traditionally, have been more focused on disease and treatment. But as both patients and caregivers become more attuned to preventing illnesses, researchers have demonstrated that different parts of the neuroendocrine system have a profound affect on disease and prognosis. Love is one of the emotions which have a salubrious effect for everyone.
The neuroendocrine system has its origins in the base of the brain in an area called the hypothalamus. This area is closely connected to the limbic system which is responsible for emotional behavior, long term memory, sexuality; it has been called the brain's pleasure center. Originally, this very primitive area of the brain evolved to protect against hostile forces such as an attack by a wild animal. Later in the brain's evolution, this area changed to respond positively to being mentally stimulated—such as being in love or being loved, solving a problem or accomplishing a task. This system is also satisfied when there is enough food, water, shelter, and comfort.
When the converse is the case, as when being lonely or threatened or attacked or in a stressful environment, e.g. a hostile work atmosphere, the neuroendocrine system is activated to release hormones into the blood stream which stimulate the fight or flight reaction. Normally the fight or flight reaction is protective and a good thing. But when one is chronically over-stimulated the mind and body become fatigued and, subsequently, a fertile ground for illnesses to germinate.
Excessive and chronic release of stress hormones causes deleterious effects on the entire body and mind. The immune system loses its ability to protect against infection, which is why colds and flu are more common in people who are “run down.” Mental health worsens as people who are stressed have used up their coping mechanisms and end up alienating those around themselves who might be able to help. The expression, “you always hurt those who love you the most” comes to mind as the aphorism describing this well-recognized but counterproductive behavior.
These fundamental changes in turn make a person more susceptible to heart disease, hypertension, and perhaps other illnesses, since stressed people tend not to eat well or exercise. Being overweight and out of shape or in poor physical condition can be the result of excessive stress and, in turn, cause stress. Incidentally, exercising regularly releases endorphins, the bodies “natural opiates,” which have a beneficial effect on the neuroendocrine system.
So you see, being in love or loving someone helps you and the other person involved. Being a loner and out of touch makes for both bad health and a sad life. The conclusion: This February, enjoy Valentine's Day in a loving relationship; you're entire body will thank you.