Valentine's Day: Good for the Heart (cont.)

Overall, experts don't recommend red wine or any other alcohol as a first line of defense against heart disease.

Cupid's Arrow

The word "love" has stumped people for ages. It has made people feel like they're floating, or become crybabies upon hearing a certain song. It has also made otherwise sensible people do crazy things.

Yet, as mysterious a force love is, there seems to be no surprise that it is capable of many, many things.

How about improving heart health? As ludicrous as it may sound -- yes -- there is proof that it can do that, too, and more.

"The evidence is very strong that good relationships have health benefits," says Blair Justice, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Texas School of Public Health.

According to Justice, various investigators have looked into different types of relationships (i.e. marriage, family, and friendship), and have shown that love can:

  • Help prevent plaque buildup in the arteries.
  • Protect against heart disease.
  • Boost levels of antibodies in the body.
  • Reduce levels of stress chemicals, which can damage the immune system.
  • Lower risk of disease in general.
  • Decrease risk of early death.
  • Lengthen life.

Love's protective effect against heart disease has been tested in several settings.

Researchers who kept track of Italian American immigrants in Roseto, Penn., found that people who maintained close family ties as in their homeland tended to have less incidence of heart disease compared with other American communities, even though they ate a high-fat diet.

"Gradually, over time, a certain percentage of these (Italian American) families started to adopt more American ways -- getting more interested in the fast life, fancy cars, and country club memberships -- and they started getting the same incidence of heart disease as people who had been in this country," says Justice.

A long-term study was also done on Japanese Americans who moved to Hawaii and California, and the results were similar. Immigrants who adopted more American ways tended to have more incidence of heart disease compared with those who kept their traditional close family ties.

One theory explaining love's effect on physical health involves human nature. "It's instinctual to have this need for touching and talking," says Justice. He says the personal contact turns on a part of the nervous system, which has a calming effect, and allows for a smaller amount stress chemicals in the body.

In addition, the human touch can lower blood pressure, and illicit a sense of safety, connection, and comfort, says Carol Rinkleib Ellison, PhD, author of Women's Sexualities, and a psychologist in private practice.

"People who do affirm their love for each other before going to sleep tend to sleep more deeply, in a more relaxed way, and they'll wake in the morning more refreshed, in a better mood, and, therefore, they'll get along better," says Ellison.

Real life may not always be as simple, but experts do agree that having less stress is good for the health of the overall body, including the heart.

Gifts From and for the Heart

Offering your sweetie love, red wine, and chocolate for Valentine's Day may, indeed, help you score big in the heart department. But romantic and healthy gift giving need not be boring.

Below are some ideas from the health experts interviewed by WebMD to help get hearts pumping.

  • Give a fruit basket, or sign up your loved one for a fruit-of-the-month club that delivers fresh produce to doorsteps. Red fruits such a strawberries, cherries, and ruby red grapefruits are rich in antioxidants, says Sass.
  • Give your loved one a pedometer. It's a fun tool that can help your honey see his or her fitness progress. After all, exercise is good for the heart. Moores suggests setting up a date to walk together.
  • Take a field trip to do something with one another, rather than buying a material object. It's a chance to create a new experience or re-live an old one together, says Ellison.
  • Give a funny book, as humor is good for the heart, says Sass.

If you're still at a loss at what to give for Valentine's Day, fret not (stress is bad for your heart health).

"Whether it's a small box of chocolates, red roses, or it's time spent together, the point is to give a gift on Valentine's Day to somebody you care about," says Novak, reminding that the effort is what usually touches a person's heart.

Originally published Jan. 26, 2004.
Medically updated Jan. 24, 2005.

SOURCES: Susan Moores, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association. Joe Vinson, professor of chemistry, University of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Cynthia Sass, RD, spokeswoman, ADA. Holly Novak, MD, director, prevention and women's health, Prairie Cardiovascular, Springfield, Ill. Blair Justice, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology, University of Texas School of Public Health. Carol Rinkleib Ellison, PhD, author, Women's Sexualities; psychologist, private practice. American Heart Association. American College of Cardiology.

©1996-2005 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.


Last Editorial Review: 2/1/2005 3:49:19 PM