Falling in love sure sounds stressful: the quickened pulse, the fixation, the anxiety that feelings won't be returned. But while the sight of your beloved might send your heart racing (thanks to a kick of adrenaline), the act of being in love may have a protective effect on your health.
Indeed, the moments of first love involve some stress. One small study of those who were newly in love found that levels of cortisol -- a stress hormone -- were higher in recent lovebirds than in those who were single or in long-term relationships. What's interesting is that when the group was tested again 12 and 24 months later, their cortisol levels had returned to normal. It suggests that the stress of falling in love is fleeting, but the benefits of being in love remain -- including some other hormonal changes that may have a stress-protective effect.
"What happens in the brain when you love someone is that there's more activity in the 'reward' system," explains Dr. Helen Fisher, a physical anthropologist who studies the neurohormonal phenomena of love and is a research professor at Rutgers University. "Your brain floods with dopamine, which gives you focus, energy and optimism and those things can all be good to counter stress."
As Fisher explains, romantic love can provide something of a loop: as you fall in love, your dopamine levels surge, which in turn contributes to testosterone production. More testosterone is linked to increased sex drive. And sexual release has a particularly healthful effect, Fisher says, delivering oxygen to the brain and other organs.
"Sex with the right person has a lot of health benefits," she says, listing a battery of stress-reducing health benefits. "It lowers blood pressure, enhances mood by releasing endorphins. It's a sedative, helps you sleep, soothes aches and pains. It even gives you healthier skin and even emotional confidence."
While many of those side benefits of the physical acts of love can contribute to reduced stress, you don't need to have sex to achieve calm: kissing, holding hands or even just looking at your beloved can release the "love hormone" oxytocin in the blood stream, Fisher told Healthy Living. And oxytocin can actually work to inhibit cortisol production and stress response. Some research finds that just feeling the emotional support of a partner was enough to amp up levels of the feel-good hormone coursing through one's veins.
So this Valentine's Day, as you're thanking your beloved for the happiness they bring you, don't forget to include the calm they provide as well.
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Bring Your Dog To Work
A recent study in the <em>International Journal of Workplace Health Management</em> showed that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/01/bringing-dog-to-work-stress_n_1391420.html" target="_hplink">bringing your dog to work</a> could help to lower office stress and boost employee satisfaction. "Pet presence may serve as a low-cost, wellness intervention readily available to many organizations and may enhance organizational satisfaction and perceptions of support," study researcher Randolph T. Barker, Ph.D., a professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University, said in a statement. "Of course, it is important to have policies in place to ensure only friendly, clean and well-behaved pets are present in the workplace." The study, which looked at the pet-friendly company Replacements, Ltd., showed that employees who brought their dogs in to work experienced <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/01/bringing-dog-to-work-stress_n_1391420.html" target="_hplink">decreases in stress</a> throughout the work day. Meanwhile, self-reported stress <em>increased</em> for people who didn't bring their dogs, and for those who don't have dogs.
Laugh It Up
If you're feeling particularly stressed, perhaps it's time to take a quick YouTube break. A small 1989 study in the <em>American Journal of the Medical Sciences</em> showed that<a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2556917" target="_hplink"> "mirthful laughter"</a> is linked with lower blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The Mayo Clinic reported that laughter also promotes <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress-relief/SR00034" target="_hplink">endorphin release</a> in the brain and relaxes the muscles, which are all key for stress relief.
Grab A Shovel And Some Seeds
Caregiving is extremely stressful, but a 2008 survey showed that gardening may help to reduce stress among caregivers. The survey, by BHG.com, showed that 60 percent of caregivers feel <a href="http://www.alz.org/national/documents/release_110308_garden.pdf" target="_hplink">relaxed when they garden</a>, the Alzheimer's Association reported. And, Health.com reported on a Netherlands study, suggesting that gardening can help to <a href="http://www.health.com/health/article/0,,20507878_2,00.html" target="_hplink">lower cortisol levels</a> and boost mood among people who had just finished a stressful task. That's because doing something that requires "involuntary attention" -- like sitting back and enjoying nature -- helps to replenish ourselves, Health.com reported.
Crack Open A Book
Just <a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/5070874/Reading-can-help-reduce-stress.html" target="_hplink">six minutes of reading</a> is enough to help you de-stress, the <em>Telegraph</em> reported. The study, which was sponsored by Galaxy chocolate, suggested that <a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/5070874/Reading-can-help-reduce-stress.html" target="_hplink">reading was linked with a slower heart rate</a> and muscle relaxation. Drinking tea or coffee, listening to music and taking a walk also seemed to help lower stress, according to the <em>Telegraph</em>.
Even if she's not there in person, a call to mom can help lower stress. <em>Scientific American</em> reported on a study in the journal <em>Proceedings of the Royal Society B</em> showing that young girls who <a href="http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/2010/05/11/a-phone-call-from-mom-reduces-stress-as-well-as-a-hug/" target="_hplink">talked to their mothers on the phone</a> after completing stressful tasks had decreased cortisol (the stress hormone) in their saliva, and increased oxytocin levels (the bonding hormone). The girls who talked to their mothers on the phone had <a href="http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/2010/05/11/a-phone-call-from-mom-reduces-stress-as-well-as-a-hug/" target="_hplink">decreased cortisol</a> and increased oxytocin levels compared with young girls who weren't allowed to contact their mothers at all, <em>Scientific American</em> reported -- girls who hugged their moms in person had a similar reaction to the phone group.
Eat Some Chocolate
Dark chocolate doesn't only have health benefits for the heart -- eating it can also help to <a href="http://www.livescience.com/7974-chocolate-reduces-stress-study-finds.html" target="_hplink">lower stress</a>. LiveScience reported on a study illustrating that eating 1.4 ounces of <a href="http://www.livescience.com/7974-chocolate-reduces-stress-study-finds.html" target="_hplink">dark chocolate</a> a day for a two-week period is linked with decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. That study was published in 2009 in the journal <em>Proteome Research</em>. (But of course, chocolate still contains sugar and lots of calories, so make sure you're eating the chocolate in moderation!)
Gossip may not be viewed as socially "good," but it <em>might</em> have benefits in relieving stress. Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, found that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/17/gossip-stress-exploitation-heart-rate_n_1211207.html" target="_hplink">gossiping can actually lower stress</a>, stop exploitation of others and police others' bad behavior. "Spreading information about the person whom they had seen behave badly tended to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/17/gossip-stress-exploitation-heart-rate_n_1211207.html" target="_hplink">make people feel better</a>, quieting the frustration that drove their gossip," study researcher Robb Willer, a social psychologist at UC Berkeley, said in a statement. Willer's research was published this year in the <em>Journal of Personality and Social Psychology</em>. So if something's bothering you, go ahead and gab -- but just make sure you move on so you don't dwell on the negative emotions!