HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

February: Love for the Heart

January has faded, and with it those dreary Calvinist resolutions designed to make us live longer. No more “bad” foods, like French fries, grilled cheese, super fudge ice cream. Instead, “good” vegetables — the leafier, the better. Nuts too: today’s food-gurus recommend these high-calorie nuggets. Chocolate – the dark kind — is OK: their flavonoids depress cholesterol. (Chocolate-covered nuts are dietary twofers.) High-calorie avocados are wondrous, as are low-calorie cranberries, teeming with antioxidants. But we’ve grown a bit hungry, a bit bored with this righteous diet.

We’ve also grown weary of running, jogging, swimming, kicking, squatting, cycling, lifting, and sweating. In January we vowed to exercise maniacally, knowing the upside – not just better bodies, but supposedly keener minds. Yet as the days lengthen, our resolve weakens. Maybe nibbling roasted kale after a 5K run will keep us living longer, but we don’t care.

So let us welcome February! It heralds a respite from Calvinism: Valentine’s Day. On this day we fete Cupid, who probed our heart – not the one cardiologists probe, but the metaphysical heart of poets, artists and lovers. That heart needs not just vegetables or statins. Instead, it needs us to stop focusing inwardly, on those good-for-me regimens. We need to look beyond ourselves — to strengthen our metaphysical hearts.

Happily, when we do so, we also strengthen out bodies. Or so the experts promise.

Consider kindness. We cannot “measure” the kindness in a person’s psyche. But we can judge “kindness” by kind acts. And, maybe like Pascal’s reasoning that acts of faith produce faith, acts of kindness make us kind. At any rate, certifiable experts extol kindness as good not just for your soul, but your body. Here a few affirmations. Allan Luks, surveying 3,000 volunteers at 20 organizations, discovered a “helper’s high” that released endorphins, leading to “immense immune system benefits.” Other studies have pointed to the rise in serotonin among kindly-acting people. ( David Hamilton, a chemist, argues that kind acts release oxytocin in the brain, which releases nitric oxide in blood vessels (lowering pressure). As an added benefit, kind acts will reduce levels of free radicals. Since free radicals contribute to aging, kindness may be a Ponce de Leon miracle. Randomized clinical trials of kindness are not easy; but North Carolina researchers divided 65 faculty members into two groups: one group spent 60 minutes daily for 61 days in “kindness compassion” meditation. Briefly, they thought kindly of somebody other than themselves. That group showed higher tone in their vagus nerves, signaling healthier hearts. The authors called kindness/compassion a “health tune-up.”

Of course, the ultimate heart-booster is love. But love is hard to define: do we mean romantic love? Filial love? Brotherly love? Or just an emotional linkage, in academic jargon, “a high social attachment”? A slew of studies, surprising only to researchers, have found that patients recovering from illness fare better when they have a “significant emotional attachment” nearby.

Often, that “significant other” is a spouse. Statistically speaking, marriage may be better at warding off illness than vitamins. As demographers have pointed out, the married among us live longer, healthier lives. Of course, marriage does not necessarily signify love: there are enough miserable ones around to nix that happy assumption. But maybe it is the connection, not the passion, that matters. In a study from the State University of New York at Oswego, 120 participants wore blood pressure monitors over 6 days. When they were with spouses, they showed lower pressure – regardless of the “happiness” of their unions.

Poets understand the power of romantic love. It is the ultimate anti-depressant, inducing a euphoria that pharmacologists cannot replicate. Alas, no clinical trials reliably measure the impact. Yet, even without researchers’ affirmation, people in love know that love — however ineffable – is an elixir. Whether it activates cortisol or oxytocin or endorphins doesn’t matter.

So this February take a prescription from Cupid. Treat a colleague to lunch. Visit the relative you’ve been meaning to visit. Send an e-mail to an old friend. And for that special person, buy flowers. Bake cupcakes. Write a poem. (Plato remarked, “At the touch of love everyone becomes a poet.”) Consider this an “injection” that will bolster your metaphysical heart.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2014

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