To Keep Your Heart Healthy, Fill It with Love

The connection between love and the heart is more than just poetic imagery.

January 25, 2012

Today, I’d like to share a powerful way to keep your heart healthy. You have probably had your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and triglycerides checked as part of your preventive medical exams. You may have been given recommendations about keeping trans fats out of your diet, drinking a glass of red wine, exercising regularly, and maintaining a healthy weight. And you may be taking antioxidants, vitamin D, fish oil, or medications to keep your heart healthy.

However, there’s a vital part of a heart-healthy lifestyle that doesn’t get enough attention: love. You see, there's a connection between love and the heart that goes beyond Valentine's Day cards and Shakespearean sonnets. In several different ways, love in fact helps prevent heart disease. Cardiovascular research shows that experiencing feelings of love, appreciation, and gratitude have immediate and long-term effects on how your heart functions. These effects counteract the damaging effects of stress and negative emotion on your heart and blood vessels.


THE DETAILS: It's not difficult to demonstrate how love and the heart interact. Recently, I saw a patient, Jenny, who was referred to me for biofeedback to help her reduce high blood pressure. I hooked Jenny up to a sensitive pulse-rate monitor that enabled her to see how her heart rate was influenced by her emotions. I gave her a couple of stress challenges: Count backwards by from 500 by sevens and then tell me about a recent stressful event. With each stressor, her heart rate soared and her heart rhythm became disorganized. This is normal. Stress disrupts heart rhythms. I asked her to think of something that made her angry. Her heart rate spiked again.

Then I asked her to think about someone she loves, or feels grateful for. Her heart rate came down almost immediately, and her heart rhythm became smoother and more regular. She was amazed to see how immediately her heart responded to her emotions.

WHAT IT MEANS: Your heart, the same organ that pumps blood through your body, is also an organ of emotion. It may not be the seat of emotion, as was once thought. But it responds to emotion, nonetheless. Anger, hostility, anxiety, and depression all cause a cascade of physiological reactions that contribute to heart disease. When you experience these stressful emotions for a prolonged period, your body responds with the perfect cardiovascular storm:

• Increased heart rate and intensity
• Increased blood vessel constriction and blood pressure
• Increased damage to epithelium, the cells lining your blood vessels
• Increased platelet stickiness (clotting)
• Increased inflammation
• Increased blood vessel calcification (stiffening)
• Disruption of heart’s electrical rhythm

Over time, these processes contribute to the deposition of atherosclerotic plaque in blood vessel walls, and to heart rhythm abnormalities. And this greatly increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.

On the other hand, feelings of love, gratitude, and appreciation help to slow heart rate, normalize heart rhythms, lower blood pressure, and reduce inflammation. Emotional closeness and affectionate physical contact also help keep your heart healthy. Holding hands, hugs, massage, and sexual intimacy cause the pituitary gland to release oxytocin, which has been called the "pair bonding hormone." Oxytocin is most well-known for stimulating contractions of the uterus during childbirth and the release of milk during breastfeeding. It promotes bonding between mothers and their infants. In both women and men, oxytocin not only facilitates bonding, it also has powerful cardioprotective effects. It decreases the level of stress hormones, primarily cortisol, and lowers blood pressure in response to distressing events. In addition to helping prevent heart disease, it actually helps heal damage to the heart and blood vessels by reducing cell death and inflammation.

Here are some ways to keep your heart healthy with the power of love:

• Make love a priority. Take time to appreciate the people you care about, and express your love often. Both you and the ones you love will benefit.

• Cultivate a loving, compassionate attitude toward yourself. If you tend to be hard on yourself, remember that everyone is fallible, including you.

• Treat yourself with loving kindness. Too often we neglect our own needs in the service of doing our job or caring for others. You can care for yourself with love by giving your body the healthy food, exercise, sunshine, and sleep it needs.

• If you tend to be quick to anger or you hold on to anger, use breathing exercises to reduce your emotional reactivity. Try to look at things from a more empathic and compassionate perspective.

• Reach out. Hug your friends and family, cuddle with your beloved, and stroke your dog or cat. Giving or receiving a massage is another wonderful way to experience the physical touch we need to keep our hearts and souls healthy.