Science of Romance: Hugs, Hormones & Heart Health

By Gil Blander, PhD, February 9, 2024


February 14th is around the corner and whether it means a box of chocolates or just another Wednesday, science has long proven that love is good for your body. While a romantic dinner on Valentine’s Day may add a temporary spark to a relationship, it turns out that living every day with the right partner can both extend your lifespan and improve your health.

How is your health affected by the quality of your relationship? Does that feel-good feeling you get when a partner embraces you also boost your biomarkers? As usual, science has the answers.

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Better chemistry for a longer life

Men and women respond differently to relationships, but the sexes have a lot in common when it comes to stress. Stress, after all, is an equal opportunity offender that’s hard to escape in our modern world. A study from UCLA on cortisol, one of the stress hormones we analyze at InsideTracker, reveals that a hard day in the office can be soothed by coming home to a loving spouse. Similarly, the stress of a bad day can be left to simmer and take a negative toll on the body when an unsupportive partner is involved.

Normal amounts of stress are part of life, and in fact, cortisol is a critical hormone that’s required at just the right dosage and time. But when an individual’s stress levels are chronically elevated and excessive, stress becomes a “silent killer.”  One 10-year-long study on married couples that tracked cortisol levels and the connection between partners demonstrated that indeed, it is healthier to be with the right person. The data concluded that "chemistry" is not just a Hollywood cliché or a nice to have — it’s a real part of the happy marriage equation and thus, key to a happy body.

Hugs for heart health

Plenty of songs have proclaimed that love is a drug. While the emotion cannot be bottled by a pharmaceutical company, the metaphor is accurate. Love has a very powerful physiological effect on our bodies. In fact, measuring the oxytocin (a "feel good" hormone that plays a role in bonding and love) released in a person’s brain when experiencing moments of loving connection in a relationship has shown researchers that a good marriage literally heals the body.

In the Psychoneuroendocrinology Journal, researchers found that wounds actually healed better in a positive marriage than a negative one. One possible reason why better healing occurs in the context of healthy marriages is thanks to the physical effect of something quite simple: hugs! Fascinating research on premenopausal women has concluded that women receiving hugs from their spouse or partner have better indices of heart health, such as blood pressure and heart rate. The simple act of touch, whether receiving or providing it, is a healthy part of our lives that makes us feel better and actually improves our immune systems.

If you’re not in a romantic relationship, that doesn’t mean you can’t reap the health rewards of physical contact. Even man’s best friend can help and benefits from a brief, loving stroke — research suggests that both cortisol and oxytocin are positively influenced by human/dog contact. That loving gaze or little snuggle your pup gives you actually has a significant biochemical effect — on both of you.


The toll of a fiery relationship

Men who participated in the in the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP) helped researchers discover that the marker of systemic inflammation, c-reactive protein (CRP), is significantly affected by a healthy or unhealthy marriage. CRP is involved with aging, immune function, metabolism, performance, recovery, and more — InsideTracker tests for hsCRP (high sensitivity c-reactive protein) because it is indeed so very critical. The study showed CRP can become significantly elevated when a marriage is not healthy.

Less testosterone, happier home?

Testosterone is another biomarker that’s affected in both men and women in connection with relationships. Testosterone declines during parenthood and marriage, but not in a way that should prompt one to worry about hormone replacement therapy. In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, this decline is a positive reaction. A healthy relationship usually means that testosterone is lowered for the betterment of the family, as fathers who have lower testosterone levels are more likely to stay around and nurture the mother and children. While we have evolved greatly since the days of our paleolithic ancestors, the biochemical effects of our sex hormones remain important.


Create your own love experiment

Many relationships have obstacles that can be met with the right commitments, far beyond wedding vows. Finding the time and energy to care for and be loving towards your life partner is about more than social expectations—it’s an investment in your lifelong health. When an InsideTracker user looks at InnerAge and wonders how to improve their score, they often focus on diet and exercise; this blog post is a reminder that relationships are also part of that anti-aging equation.  

Does a better set of biomarkers help your relationship, or does a better relationship help your biomarkers? The chicken and egg paradox is perhaps an inherent component of a long, healthy life and marriage, but we suggest doing both—and looking for the results in your next blood test.


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