At last the gloom of January is fading and the days are very slightly longer and the snowdrops are out, leading the way for the daffodils and other spring flowers. February is traditionally the month where romantic love is celebrated with St Valentine’s Day on the 14th. It is a time of excitement for new lovers and a time to reaffirm love for long term partners. For some this brings happiness and a feeling of contentment. For singletons who yearn to find a partner or who have lost a much loved partner it can be a time of sadness. It can also be an upsetting time for those in loveless relationships. How do these feelings affect our health and are there ways, such as eating the right diet, which can boost our happiness and health? These are some of the issues we shall explore in this article.
The three stages of love
Let us start by looking at the impact romantic love has on our health. According to Helen Fisher of Rutgers University, New Jersey, there are three stages involved when we fall in love;
- Lust – when the sex hormones oestrogen and testosterone are raised, getting us ‘in the mood’
- Attraction – certain neurotransmitters called monoamines are released including dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. While these cause elation and intense pleasure they also cause tension and anxiety
- Attachment – this occurs if the relationship starts to become long lasting and the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin are released. These cause pleasure and increase bonding.
According to the US National Institutes of Health, oxytocin is released through touching, hand holding and sex and, as well as making us feel good, it reduces the stress hormone levels, reduces blood pressure and increases tolerance for pain.
Being in a happy relationship confers other health benefits – statistically married people visit their GP less frequently than single people, they are less likely to overindulge with alcohol or take drugs, they live longer, have fewer colds and ‘flu and heal more quickly.
An unhappy marriage is harmful to our health
However, being in an unhappy marriage can have a serious detrimental effect on health. A study at the University of Pittsburgh showed that those people in unhappy marriages have thicker carotid arteries, a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and an 8.5% greater risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke. Another study conducted at Michigan State University and the University of Chicago looked at older people and also showed that being in an unhappy marriage increased the likelihood of heart disease especially for women aged between 70 and 80 years old. This research concluded that “a bad marriage is more harmful to your heart health than a good marriage is beneficial.”
Happy people live longer
If a loving supportive long term relationship leads to a general feeling of happiness, how relevant is happiness to health? There are several studies which suggest that it has a profound effect on health. The University of Illinois reviewed over 160 studies involving humans and animals and found that happy people are healthier and live longer than unhappy people. One of the studies reviewed, involved assessing the pessimism levels of nearly 5000 students and following them for the next 40 years – the results showed that the more pessimistic students tended to die younger than others. Another study examined the autobiographies 180 nuns wrote when they entered a convent as young adults and then followed them to old age. The nuns who had written positive autobiographies in their early twenties tended to outlive the nuns who wrote more negatively about their lives.
In another University of Illinois study, over 5000 volunteers, aged from 45 to 84 years, from a range of ethnic backgrounds had their cardiovascular health assessed by measuring their blood pressure, Body Mass Index, fasting plasma glucose, serum cholesterol, dietary intake, levels of physical activity and tobacco use. The participants also filled out questionnaires about their mental health, other aspects of their physical health and their perceived levels of optimism. The results showed that there was a strong correlation between good cardiovascular health and high levels of optimism.
At the Harvard School of Public Health one study followed 6000 volunteers aged from 25 to 74 for 20 years and made the link between good emotional vitality and reduced risk of coronary heart disease. These are the conditions which are thought to either manage or reduce the risk of certain diseases such as heart disease, strokes, depression and diabetes;
- Emotional vitality – a sense of enthusiasm, engagement and hopefulness
- Supportive network of family and friends
- Being good at self-regulation or being resilient
Negative emotions harm our health
Conversely, many studies have shown that negative emotions such as pessimism, sustained anger and stress can lead to poor health. Unfortunately there has been research done at the University of Warwick to show that people in the UK are genetically programmed to be more miserable than some other nations. This showed that the British, Americans and French have short forms of the gene which regulates the amount of serotonin within the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which is thought to be important for maintaining mood balance and too little can lead to depression. The Danish and Dutch have longer versions of this gene and report greater levels of happiness than the British. So does that mean we are doomed to lives of misery and therefore poor health? The answer to that is definitely not as there are actions we can take to promote happiness.
Eat healthy to be optimistic
One surprising action we can take is to increase our fruit and vegetable intake. Research undertaken by Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard University and the University of Wisconsin found that those people who ate thre eor more portions of fruit and vegetables a day were more optimistic than those who ate two or fewer. 982 men and women aged 25 to 74 had blood samples taken and levels of nine different antioxidants, including carotenoids such as beta-carotene and vitamin E were measured. The participants also answered questions including whether they felt they were optimistic or not. They found that the amount of carotenoids was up to 13% higher in the blood of more optimistic people than in that of less optimistic ones. These carotenoids are found in fresh fruit and vegetables.
Exercise boosts happiness
Another simple measure which can be taken to boost mood is exercise. Physical activity has been shown to cause the release of endorphins. These chemicals have a similar effect on the brain as morphine in that they deaden pain and create a feeling of euphoria or happiness. Exercising outside in a green environment is even more beneficial. One further positive effect of exercise is that it helps people sleep and sleep has a profound impact on mood. Too little sleep results in irritability and stress.
Think positive be positive
The principle behind Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is that anyone can change their negative thoughts into positive ones with practice. A very simple way to increase positive thinking is by noting when you have thought or said two negative ideas and making yourself think or say something positive e.g.
- ‘I hate January as it’s so cold.’ (negative)
- ‘I’ve got no money after Christmas’ (negative)
- ‘I love the smell of my hyacinths in the lounge’ (positive)
The trouble with negative thoughts is that they tend to lead to more negative thoughts and by getting into the habit of stopping after two and inserting a positive one stops the mood spiralling down. Gradually you can adopt a more positive frame of mind and your health will improve.
In conclusion, express your love this February. If you have no partner show your love to others - the benefits to your health are still good. Eat fruit and vegetables, take exercise and get a good night’s sleep knowing that both your physical and mental wellbeing will be enhanced. Finally, look for happiness in your life and rejoice in it.