Doctors and patients are always searching for the best medicine — but now study after study show a special cure may be looking them straight in the face. From lessening pain to lowering blood pressure, one of the best ways to heal may be through the healing power of love, experts say.
The new scientific awareness of love’s healing power has come from a variety of sources. “It’s the biopsychosocial model of understanding this. It’s biology. It’s social factors. It’s psychological factors. And it’s the combination of the benefits of relationship and love in all of those areas that produce the overall benefit,” says Heather Ulrich, assistant professor of psychology at UNC Asheville and a local psychologist who specializes in infant mental health, attachment-based disorders, toxic stress, trauma and relational neurobiology.
“As far as I am aware, every single system in the body responds to the healing power of love. That is because the biology of love is the biology of health,” explains Sue Carter, a professor of biology at Indiana University and director of the Kinsey Institute.
While Carter has focused on love and social bonds for more than three decades, she notes that scientists have not always studied it. “The word ‘love’ is rarely used in science, although it is a perfectly good word,” says Carter. “In 1998, there was hardly any research.” She explains that science is new to the game but that recently has it become “very clear in this century that our health depends on our relationships.”
Julie Hruska, an Asheville-based life coach and yoga instructor, says she has experienced her own healing from a deeply loving relationship and has witnessed it in others.
Though Hruska is no longer in that relationship, she recalls that it “brought about several physical health benefits for both of us. His doctor noticed decreased cortisol levels and lower blood pressure. Everyone at work noticed a dramatic increase in his levels of happiness. And I felt happier and more at ease, with surges of positive energy throughout our time together. I’ve seen similar health benefits in clients who have healthy, romantic relationships.”
Ulrich explains one example of a biological component of love’s healing power — oxytocin. “Love within a relationship produces the hormone oxytocin. Biologically, oxytocin is our feel-good hormone. Oxytocin is also the combatant to cortisol and our stress hormones. And we know that cortisol and stress hormones have negative impacts on our overall health — our cardiovascular, our immune system. Oxytocin is a protective factor and a healthy factor as well.” Carter agrees: “There has been a flood of information showing that oxytocin has direct healing power. … I am not aware of any disorder where it is not beneficial.”
According to Ulrich, love also triggers other biological processes, including dopamine production in our brain. “Our dopamine system is our reward, our pleasure and motivation system. Again, dopamine and those feelings also have beneficial health effects on that biological level.”
One powerful psychological factor that contributes to love’s healing power comes from love’s positive emotions, Ulrich explains. “Positive relationships produce positive emotions, and research has consistently shown that the more positive emotions we have, it combats against immune, endocrine or cardiovascular [problems]. Whereas negative emotions and being in a negative emotional state cause stress on all of our health systems. Research has actually shown that people who have more positive emotions overall are more resistant to colds.”
Finally, there are the social factors in a relationship that contribute to our healing, Ulrich says, noting that we behave in ways that help us to heal when we are in a relationship: “When we’re in a positive relationship, our partners are more likely to have us take care of ourselves — to have us not want to smoke or to want to be active and healthy, [to have the] support and encouragement to make healthy lifestyle choices as well. It is just another element on the positive power of relationships on health.”
All of the studies on love and healing add up to make a strong case that you “can look at all the relationship studies and use logic to connect that rewarding relationships improve your wellness,” says Pavel Goldstein, a research associate at the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Studies have even shown that a rewarding relationship with a pet has healing properties as well. Samuel Hensley, an Asheville social worker and licensed clinical addiction specialist, believes that he was healed through his connection with his dog, Murphy. He adopted Murphy from the Humane Society just after the sudden death of a close friend. “Prior to the adoption, I was suffering from an inability to sleep, inability to function due to depressed mood in addition to lack of appetite, resulting in blood-sugar issues.” Hensley explains that “having this large dog in my space propelled my healing by allowing love and attachment of a significant living thing. … As the moments with [Murphy] increased, my physical symptoms decreased.”
The secret with relationships, according to Carter, Ulrich and Goldstein, is for those involved to be close enough to one other to bestow these benefits.
Carter says, “It’s a good guess that the better the relationship is, the more benefits that come. Because the obvious [explanation] is that you are reducing the stress and feelings of abandonment — or whatever goes with being in a relationship that isn’t working.”
Ulrich reaches the same conclusion: “Research has shown that the quality of intimate relationships in particular, so back to that love factor, is linked to mental and physical well-being.” She notes that “one study in particular showed that those individuals [who were happily married] have lower blood pressure than individuals who were unhappily married. So a relationship without love — unhappy marriage — those individuals had higher blood pressure. So, really it’s the quality of that intimate relationship that does make the difference. If you’re in an unhappy marriage, your blood pressure is likely going to get better if you get divorced than if you stay in an unhappy marriage. There is research to support that.”
“But of course, the relationship has to be positive,” notes Carter. “You wouldn’t expect that if a person is living in a very unhappy relationship that they would get these kinds of benefits. They don’t much.”
Goldstein’s research further supports the notion that the quality of the connection does matter. He served as the lead author of a June 2017 study published in the journal Scientific Reports that measured love’s biological impact on our experiences of pain. Through this and other studies, his team was able to document that a lover’s touch lessened the experience of a partner’s physical pain. He noted that while “it had this effect only on romantic couples — people who have some history of relationship,” it “was higher in couples whose partners had higher empathy.”
Fortunately, Carter explains, it doesn’t need to be a perfect relationship, just positive enough: “It’s still better to be with somebody, even if it’s not a perfect relationship, than it is to be alone.”