What's So Great About Kissing?
A serious, tongue-tangling kiss triggers a whole spectrum of physiological processes that can boost your immunity and generally spruce up that body you work so hard to keep attractive.
By Jeanie Lerche Davis
Reviewed By Michael Smith
Face it -- a great kiss makes the world dissolve, makes us dizzy with desire.
"Kissing is passion and romance and what keeps people together," says Michael Cane, author of The Art of Kissing, who "lectures" on kissing at colleges around the country.
"Women say they can tell if a relationship is going to work after the first kiss, after the first night of kissing," he says. "They just get a feeling, an intuition."
And while kissing may feel oh-so-good, it also has health benefits, too. It triggers a whole spectrum of physiological processes that boost your immunity and generally spruce up that body you work so hard to keep attractive.
Kiss Me, You Fool
Among the benefits of a good wet one: That extra saliva washes bacteria off your teeth, which can help break down oral plaque, says Mathew Messina, DDS, a private practice dentist in Fairview Park, Ohio, and consumer advisor for the American Dental Association. "Still, I would not go around advocating kissing after meals instead of brushing," he says.
A serious, tongue-tangling French kiss exercises all the underlying muscles of the face -- which some say could keep you looking younger, and certainly looking happier.
Kissing might even help you lose weight, says Bryant Stamford, PhD, professor and director of the health promotion center at the University of Louisville. "During a really, really passionate kiss, you might burn two calories a minute -- double your metabolic rate," he says. (This compares to 11.2 calories per minute you burn jogging on a treadmill.)
When you give sugar, you actually burn sugar. Sex sparks a good calorie burn, Stamford says, especially "if you're passionately involved, thrashing around. If things were really hot and heavy, you might be looking at a caloric expenditure similar to a brisk walk."
But don't confuse great sex with a cardiovascular workout, he says.
"People tend to have the misconception that anything that raises your heart rate has the same effect as jogging, so it must be good for fitness. Not true," he says. "Anything can get your heart racing ... that's just adrenaline."
Kissing as Meditation
Tension relief -- that's what good lovin' brings, says Stamford. "Sex and love are probably the Rodney Dangerfield of stress management. Because of all the negative energy we take in during the day, it's a very positive benefit."
All in all, kissing and everything it engenders keeps us going strong, living long, says Stamford. "The process of being active -- and that can include kissing, sex, and any other whole-body activities -- that's what keeps you healthy."
Sex, sensuality, and sensual touch have profound effects on well-being, says Joy Davidson, PhD, psychologist and clinical sexologist in Seattle, and former columnist for an online column called "Underwire."
"Kissing is an exciting excursion into the sensual," Davidson tells WebMD. "If we happen to be connecting with someone we care about, it produces a sense of well-being and a kind of full-bodied pleasure."
Kissing is also "a sensual meditation," she says. "It stops the buzz in your mind, it quells anxiety, and it heightens the experience of being present in the moment. It actually produces a lot of the physiological changes that meditation produces."
And while kissing may be nature's way of "opening the door to the sexual experience," she says, "it also has all that lusciousness that we need to pull us out of the mundane and the ordinary and take us into moments of the extraordinary."
Birds, Bees, and More
Birds do it -- tap their bills together, that is.
"We don't know if bees do it," says Helen Fisher, PhD, professor of anthropology at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., and author of several books, including The Sex Contract and Anatomy of Love. Romantic love is her research specialty.
"All kinds of animals kiss," says Fisher. "Insects will stroke each other with a leg, or stroke another's abdomen. Even turtles, moles, and cats rub noses. Dogs lick each other's faces. Elephants put their trunks in another elephant's mouth."
When chimpanzees kiss, "it's with a deep French kiss," she says. "They do it for all kinds of reasons -- there's social kissing, kissing to relieve tension, to express friendship, to make up after an argument. Two males will kiss, two females will kiss, a mother and child will kiss on the lips. They don't choose mates; it's whomever they're interacting with."
Kissing is a very investigatory process, Fisher explains.
"By the time you're kissing someone, you're right up next to them, you are in their personal space," she says. "That in itself means you have trusted them. You're also learning quite a bit about them -- you touch them, smell them, taste them, see the expressions on their face, learn something about their health status, learn a great deal about their intentions."
The brain contains "a huge amount of receptors devoted to picking sensations from the lips," Fisher says. "When people have been stabbed in the back, they often don't know it. They think someone has pounded them with their fist, because there aren't many receptor sites for nerve endings."
Why? All these sensors aid our survival. They direct a baby toward milk; they helped our ancestors -- for millions of years -- to discern whether their food was poisonous or not. "The mouth is absolutely essential to survival -- everything passes through there, and if it's the wrong thing, you're cooked," she says.
"The receptors on the lips are incredible," she tells WebMD. "I've heard hookers say they would rather copulate with somebody than kiss them because the intensity of kissing somebody is so meaningful. There's tremendous intimacy. ... Even the genitals do not have the sensitivity that the lips have."
The Bonding Power of Locking Lips
For man and animals, kissing is a bonding behavior, she says. "There are all kinds of social reasons that humans and animals kiss, and they don't all have to do with sex. Most cultures in the world do kiss sexually. [But some] peoples in South America, some in the Himalaya Mountains, do not kiss. They find it revolting to exchange saliva."
Kissing also engenders touch, often called "the mother of the senses, because of its power," says Fisher. "We know that massaging someone produces increased levels of oxytocin, which is a calming hormone. So there's every reason to think kissing is extremely calming, if you know the person well, or extremely stimulating if you are in love with somebody."
Studies of rodents -- voles, specifically -- have shown that oxytocin makes a mother vole become attached to its offspring, says Larry Young, PhD, professor of psychiatry in the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience at Emory University Medical School in Atlanta.
Whether a guy vole sticks around "afterward" seems to be driven by oxytocin, Young tells WebMD.
Prairie voles are the only vole species that mate for life; their genetic makeup drives them to produce satisfying amounts of oxytocin. On the other hand, mountain voles are loners and breed promiscuously; they produce virtually no oxytocin.
In humans, this translates into the bonding benefits of kissing, foreplay, every bit of touching you do.
Here's a tip: "One of most powerful releases of oxytocin is stimulation of the nipples," Young tells WebMD. It's the same biological mechanism that triggers milk flow during nursing. Sucking triggers oxytocin release, and thus the bond is created.
Humans, interestingly enough, are the only species that includes nipple stimulation in lovemaking, he adds.
Romance, Love -- or Lust?
That rush that sweeps through your body, during those particularly great kisses? Fisher knows it well.
"Kissing is contextual," she says. "A kiss can be wildly sexual, wildly romantic, or it can be deeply gratifying because it's an affirmation of attachment. Kissing somebody for the first time, rather than the 200th or 2,000th time, creates a situation of incredible novelty."
That rush you feel is probably from two natural stimulants -- dopamine and norepinephrine, Fisher says. "They tend to be activated when you get into a novel situation."
Fisher says there are three different stages one typically goes through:
"Each of these is associated with different chemical systems in the brain," says Fisher. Sex drive and lust are triggered by testosterone, in both men and women. Dopamine and norepinephrine kick in when romance begins. Oxytocin is a factor in at the attachment phase, bringing the sense of calm and peace you find with "the one."
If you're in the midst of a "mad love affair, it's quite possible you simply feel levels of dopamine, that zing of romantic infatuation," Fisher tells WebMD. "If all you're doing is having a sexual fling with someone you like very well -- but are not in love with and don't feel attached to -- then all you may feel is sex drive, the effects of testosterone."
Unless you're kissing the wrong person, kissing quite likely is good for us, says Fisher.
"I've often thought it would boost the immune system," she says. "If you're sharing your germs with somebody, you're adding to your internal defense system."
Kissing also stimulates the brain, and when the experience is a positive one, "you notice it," she says. "That translates into the euphoria, or the sex drive, or the sense of calm and peace.
"Kissing helps your state of mind," she adds. "Infatuation can be perfectly divine. If you're madly in love with somebody, it's perfectly wonderful to kiss them. It creates incredible intimacy. It boosts self-esteem. It's wonderful to be kissed by somebody."
Originally published Nov. 12, 2001.
Medically updated Jan. 23, 2004.
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