Love and Health

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How important is love for your health? Some people report that love has had a healing effect on their life and health. Has love or lack of it made a difference for you?

I’ll admit it. I’m writing this topic to please myself. Most readers might rather hear about new therapies or food information. But I’m kind of a love freak. The love and affection of others is really important to me, perhaps more important than it should be. But that’s who I am, so I’ve been happy to read some research showing that love is, in fact, healing.

Love is hard to research, partly because there’s no clear definition of what it is. The ancient Greeks had four major words for love, and they are useful distinctions.

Agape is unconditional, heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul love. Love that doesn’t want anything and takes joy in others’ existence. It has a strongly spiritual element, like the Indian word “Namaste,” which means something like “The divine within me salutes the divine within you.” Theologians often connect agape with God’s love for creation or people’s love for God.

Eros is passionate love, with sensual desire and longing. The passion of Eros is often sexual, but not always. You can have intense attraction without sex.

Philia is similar to friendship, the affection we have for families, friends, and community. There is also the less-used word Storge, which seems close to “acceptance,” as in “You exist, so I (might as well) love you.”

I think all these types of love have benefits, but the research has been limited and mostly studies married couples. Although none of the following studies looked at blood glucose, many of the results seem highly relevant to diabetes.

A paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology looked at 42 couples who lived together. They were tested for the stress hormone cortisol before, during and after being separated for four to seven days. When the couples were apart, they had higher cortisol levels and had worse sleep than when they were together.

ABC News reported on a study showing that being with a spouse or partner is linked with a drop in blood pressure. A University of North Carolina study found that women who frequently hugged their partners had lower blood pressure.

Quoted in Healthy Magazine, Carole Lieberman, MD, MPH, of UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute, said “We’re all born with a primal need for affection — to be embraced, accepted and cooed over… Having someone who loves you cuts down tremendously on stress.., Your self-confidence rises because you know your partner has your back.”

A Swedish study published in the British Medical Journal found that living as a couple in midlife was linked to better thinking in old age. Other studies showed that seeing friends, belonging to a club, or doing volunteer work helped brains function.

Married people also tend to have better health behaviors, maybe because their spouses keep them in line. A Department of Health and Human Services analysis found that married people consult doctors less frequently, have shorter hospital stays, and are less likely to be admitted to a nursing home.

Married people have higher resistance to colds and flu. According to Dr. Lieberman, their better resistance might come from lower stress.

But for some people, marriage is not low-stress. According to a piece in the The Washington Post, Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University found that happily married people have lower blood pressure than unmarried people. But unhappily married people have higher blood pressure than both groups. So you’re probably better off alone than in a troubled marriage.

There is more to love than married primary relationships. People can have philia, agape, and sometime eros with many people, and it’s all good. American Christian theologian Thomas Jay Oord, says “To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic response to others, to promote overall well-being.” gives over 100 words for love, including the nouns affection, devotion, allegiance, and passion, and the verbs cherish and adore.

I like the word “cherish,” because that’s an attitude that doesn’t have to focus on just one person and doesn’t have to be sexual. Perhaps because I have a chronic disabling illness, perhaps because I’m getting older, I find love is more important, and I find I’m having more of it. I’m cherishing people more, and as a result, I’m happier.

Where does love come from? From my experience, keys are being accepting of yourself and others. Let other people be who they are, not some perfect image of how you want them to be. When you do that, you can give agape and philia to almost anybody, and you start to feel it coming back. Your stress levels and blood pressure start to come down. I like it. Namaste.

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