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Published February 13, 2013, 11:35 PM

Positively Beautiful: How love affects your heart, health

On Valentine’s Day, we celebrate love and our thoughts turn to romance, candles, roses and chocolate. And if you have a 5-year old, it also turns to decorated shoe boxes and little cards with sparkles, hearts, flowers, and even temporary tattoos!

By: Dr. Susan Mathison, Areavoices.com, INFORUM

On Valentine’s Day, we celebrate love and our thoughts turn to romance, candles, roses and chocolate. And if you have a 5-year old, it also turns to decorated shoe boxes and little cards with sparkles, hearts, flowers, and even temporary tattoos! But did you know that love is really good for you, too? Since emotional health is strongly tied to physical health, there is even more to be happy about than candy hearts and Hallmark cards.

Our hearts have been given mystical properties through the centuries. In the chakra system used by many ancient religions, the heart chakra is the center of positive energy. It physically governs the immune system and circulation, emotionally governs love for self and others, mentally governs passion, and spiritually governs emotion.

Love seems to emanate from our hearts, and sometimes defies our logical mind. But what happens in our brain can be good for our hearts. Our thoughts of love signal some complex neurochemistry, like dopamine and oxytocin, that initiate feelings of tenderness, trust, pleasure and reward. Good romantic relationships lower blood pressure, lower the stress response and improve the immune system. At the opposite end of the spectrum, people in unsupportive or harmful relationships are at higher risk for heart disease, depression and pain.

And have you ever heard “He died of a broken heart,” or noticed that the elderly who lose a spouse after a long, happy marriage often soon follow the path to heaven? Heart surgeon Dr Kathy Magliato, interviewed on Oprah’s network, described “broken heart syndrome” as an emotional heart attack brought on by a break-up, death of a loved one, or an intense surprise. The upper part of the heart is beating vigorously, while the lower part is stunned and weak, leading to failure of the heart. Yet later examination of the heart usually reveals clean arteries and no muscular damage. The emotional stress was the causative factor.

What can you do to feel more loved and be more loving, and get a healthier heart while you are at it?

  • Sign up for Gretchen Rubin’s free 21 Day Relationship Challenge at www.Happiness-Project.com. I’m on day 14, and am enjoying simple reminders such as “plan a little surprise,” “start and end the day with a hug or kiss,” and “don’t keep score.” For even more ideas, check out her best-selling books “The Happiness Project” and “Happier at Home.”

  • Write a letter, with pen and paper, telling someone you love how much they mean to you.

  • Get physical at home. Holding hands and hugging lower blood pressure and increase feelings of well-being. Sex is a great stress reliever.

  • Hit the gym together. Researchers found that married couples who work out together go more often and stick with it longer.

  • Give your pet a Valentine. Loving relationships are often found with pets. Studies show that owning a dog or cat reduces a person’s stress level. People with pets are less likely to suffer a heart attack.

  • Don’t worry if you are single, as the benefits of love extend beyond romantic relationships. Family, church, spiritual and community relationships are profoundly important.

  • If you are feeling unloved, try reaching out and making connections through service. Volunteers help themselves to better health while helping others, according to a study released by the Corporation for National and Community Service. The report showed that volunteers have greater longevity, higher functional ability, lower rates of depression and less incidence of heart disease.

  • Love your body. While it’s great to think of the important others in our lives, we sometimes need a reminder to love ourselves too. Get a check-up, know your heart-health numbers, do some fun movement every day, eat well, get a massage and enjoy. The more you take care of yourself, the more love you have to give.

What are your favorite ways of sharing love?

This column was written exclusively for The Forum.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com. Email her at shesays@forumcomm.com.

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