How a good relationship keeps you healthy
It often seems that no matter how hard we try to figure some things out, the further away the answers seem to be. Romantic relationships certainly fall into this category.
It’s a fact of life. Humans are complex, which means human interaction is incredibly so. Think about it: All of the complexities of your daily life and your personality are mixed up with the complexities of your partner’s daily life and personality. And amidst all of that you have to find the balance, the compromise, and, ultimately, the time for each other and for the relationship itself.
But this is not to be negative about relationships. In fact, just the opposite. This article is about how healthy relationships can lead to a healthier you. So while we have to acknowledge that relationships will always be one of the more complex challenges in our lives (if not the most complex), we must also acknowledge that they are necessary for humans – necessary for our emotional and mental health, and without a doubt our physical well-being as well.
Let’s take a look at four ways that strong relationships benefit our overall health.
They lower stress
Studies have shown that those in a healthy relationship have lower stress levels than those who are single. Just a few years ago, the University of Chicago conducted a study on marriage and stress and found that a healthy marriage can relieve stress by lowering the amount of cortisol the body produces.
Why does this matter? Well, cortisol, often called the “stress hormone,” is meant for “fight or flight” situations. This means extremely short term elevations of cortisol are ok, but not the “always on” elevations caused by the chronic stress of everyday life. This can lead to everything from weight gain to heart disease to digestive problems to depression – and much more.
More intimacy is good medicine
Ok folks this one is a biggie. Healthy couples tend to have a more, ahem, active routine in the bedroom (or wherever), and there are loads of benefits to be had here.
For starters, studies have shown that sexually active people take fewer sick days. The reason? According to researchers at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, those having sex once or twice a week had higher levels of certain antibodies that protect the body against germs and viruses.
But there is more: Studies have shown that sex helps lower heart attack risk; that it counts as exercise, helping us burn calories while upping our heart rates; that it helps keep our estrogen and testosterone levels in balance – two hormones that are key for our overall health; and that it reduces the risk of prostate cancer.
There’s lots more, but I think I don’t need to make the hard sell on this one.
They lower blood pressure
High blood pressure (hypertension) is a big issue in our day and age. Can love and happiness at home possibly have a positive effect on our blood pressure levels? According to studies, it can indeed. A study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that those of us who are in a happy marriage have the best blood pressure levels, single people come in second, and unhappily married people fare the worst.
Why is this? There are many potential reasons here. Simply being around your trusted and familiar partner helps to lower blood pressure. Hugging and intimacy in particular will stimulate your vagus nerve, which can send a signal to slow your heart rate and lower blood pressure. Over the long-term, the better blood pressure readings are likely tied to those lower cortisol levels . Cortisol, after all, narrows the arteries, forcing blood to pump harder and faster, which can lead to chronically high blood pressure.
They help improve mental health
As it turns out, being in love can help combat mental health issues. Studies over the years have taken a look at depression levels of married people (or couples living together) versus people living alone, and the findings are worth a closer look.
One such study from 2007 published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that married couples scored an average of 3.42 points lower on the 84-point depression scale than unmarried people.
What is perhaps most interesting about the findings is that many married people who had suffered from depression prior to their marriage showed significant improvement in their mental health after marrying (or moving in with their partner).
What words of wisdom can I possibly leave you with when it comes to relationships? Let’s try a little reality in the form of a stolen quote from the 2006 romantic comedy “Catch and Release.” That quote goes like this: “Life is messy. Love is messier.”
And this is not being cynical. It’s important to recognize and be very open about the fact that relationships of all types are complicated for us humans. And nothing is wrong with that. It is, quite simply, a challenge that will always be a part of our lives.
But what is clear is that good relationships add years to our lives – with research suggesting that our heart health benefits the most. So while it is easy to get into a routine – and to even push that relationship down the “importance scale” of life’s big issues – do not take this one for granted, because you will be missing out on a lot of good things.
Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah. Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.