By Jamie Ducharme – Time
If you’re in a relationship, Valentine’s Day may be one of the healthiest days of the year — despite the champagne and chocolate.
That’s because love come with some solid health benefits, according to a growing body of scientific research. Dr. Helen Riess, director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of the forthcoming book The Empathy Effect, told TIME how falling head over heels can help your health, both mentally and physically.
Love makes you happy.
When you first fall in love, dopamine, the feel-good brain chemical associated with reward, is especially active. “That is a mood intensifier, so people feel extremely positive and very appreciated,” Riess says — hence that “on cloud nine” feeling you get in the throes of a new relationship.
But new lovebirds also experience a spike in the stress hormone cortisol and a concurrent drop in the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin, according to a letter from the Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute. That may account for some of the erratic behavior — passion mixed with anxiety, obsession and nervousness — that often goes along with blossoming love.
Dopamine levels may stay elevated even as your love matures, studies suggest, but you’ll likely see cortisol and serotonin levels return to normal, helping you calm down and settle into the relationship without losing the mood-brightening perks.
Love busts stress.
After the honeymoon phase subsides, all of that dopamine starts to share real estate with another brain chemical: oxytocin, or the bonding hormone. That not only gives you “warm and fuzzy” feelings for your partner, but it can also be good for your health, Riess says.
“When people feel securely attached, their stress levels go down,” she says. “Just being in the presence of someone who greets us with positive regard and caring can actually lower those levels of cortisol and adrenaline and create greater homeostasis, which means that your neurochemicals are back in balance.”
If you’re away from your significant other, thinking about them, talking to them on the phone or even texting with them can help conjure these feelings, Riess says.
Love eases anxiety.
Quite a few studies have pointed to ways that loneliness can hurt your health, from increasing inflammation to activating pain centers. “The feeling of loneliness stimulates anxiety, which is mediated by different neurotransmitters, like norepinephrine,” Riess says. “Also, cortisol and adrenaline levels rise when people feel insecure and threatened,” which triggers your body’s stress response. Being in love and feeling close to another person can mitigate anxiety.
Love makes you take better care of yourself.
The benefits of love aren’t all in your head. “Couples encourage each other to go to the doctor when they don’t want to,” Riess says. “There’s a lot of denial around medical illness, and individuals are more likely to shrug off something and say, ‘This can’t be serious.’”
The data bears this out. People who are paired off may be able to detect melanoma earlier than singletons, since their partner can spot suspicious moles right away. The same goes for abnormal bruising, which can be a sign of serious conditions such as leukemia, kidney disease and Cushing’s disease, Riess says. Sometimes, partners will even notice signs of allergies or other persistent health problems before the sufferer does.
Love helps you live longer.
Research has shown that married couples enjoy greater longevity than singles — making “’til death do us part” even more of a commitment. Studies suggest those long-life benefits are largely explained by consistent social and emotional support, better adherence to medical care and having a partner who can hold you accountable to healthy lifestyle behaviors and steer you away from bad ones. Married couples have been found to have lower rates of substance abuse, lower blood pressure and less depression than single peers.
But there’s also good news for the unattached. In 2010, a review of 148 studies found that longevity benefits were linked to all close social relationships, not just romantic ones — meaning your friends and family are good for your health, too.
Write to Jamie Ducharme at [email protected].