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.