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Let's Get It On: What Love Actually Has to do with Your heart

February 1, 2020

Plastered all over the month of February (and tourist t-shirts in New York City) is the universal symbol of love: the curvaceously recognizable if not anatomically correct, scarlet heart. By February’s mid-point, we are all keenly aware of the symbolic implications of that heart for our love lives. A cartoony cupid, diaper sagging, inflicts the swooning drama of falling in love on his victims with an arrow shot directly into their hearts. We have been inculcated since kindergarten, cutting & pasting construction paper hearts for our friends: this <3 is love. The sorrow of lost love in our culture is a “broken heart.” When we (finally!) disclose our secret crushes & desires, we are “speaking from the heart.” The American Heart Association has jumped on the Hallmark bandwagon & claimed February, in all its lovey-dovey lacey, sparkly heartiness, as American Heart Month, leaving us all to wonder what, if anything, does Love have to do with the heart. 

From that first grade-school crush to the rapture of discovering that most recent One, scientific researchers & poets alike have described the experience of seeing or being near the beloved: tachycardia, a heart that skips a beat, is all aflutter or, as comically depicted in Looney Tunes, throbs to the point of pounding right out of our chests. This experience of cardiac excitement at proximity of the object of one’s desire is the result of the thrill of the adrenaline rush one’s body supplies as a result of the hormonal cascade that is triggered by love. Awash in norepinephrine, serotonin, cortisol, dopamine & adrenaline, the cardiac fibers respond to electrical stimulation by kicking it up a notch. The result: titillation, scintillation, bow chicka wow wow.

In someone with a cardiac disorder or someone with compromised cardiac function, this potent potion of neurochemicals could actually induce a heart attack as a result of increased oxygen requirements to support that pounding heart. Academic cardiologists cite situations in which they have prescribed medications to cardiac patients to reduce the impact of the physiologic effect that falling in love has on the heart. So, then, is Love dangerous for the heart?

The answer, as derived from recent studies involving another romantic chemical, the hormone oxytocin, is that love may be precisely what the doctor ordered: the very key to a healthy, happy heart. Oxytocin is a neurohypophyseal hormone found in all mammals that has received mass media play as the “trust hormone.” While oxytocin is directly involved in the establishment and maintenance of social relationships (and its lack has recently been implicated in the presentation of autistic spectrum disorders), the physiologic and psychologic impact that oxytocin has on us goes far beyond trust. To get to the heart of it, we must first examine the roles thus far discovered for this crucial molecule.

Oxytocin in the medical world was previously limited to study & evaluation of childbearing women, whose uteri respond to stimulation by oxytocin by contracting. Oxytocin levels are increased in women during spontaneous labor as well as immediately following delivery, and these naturally increased levels have long been demonstrated to increase maternal bonding behavior as well as to promote milk production & successful breastfeeding. Oxytocin is so effective at facilitating labor that a synthetic formulation is now routinely utilized for labor induction and augmentation and administered postpartum for prevention and treatment of maternal hemorrhages.

But oxytocin comes into play long before the emerging baby was ever conceived. Oxytocin plays a critical role in the sexual attraction and sexual encounter that led to the conception of the baby that is later born with the help of its mother’s or Big Pharma’s oxytotic juices. The release of oxytocin occurs during human contact and increases measurably when gazing into another human’s (or, actually, animal’s--herein lies the role of the therapy dog, or cat, or hamster) eyes. This increase in oxytocin under the right circumstances can lead to sexual arousal in both women & men, and the continuous stream of oxytocin-induced arousal helps men to maintain and sustain their erections. The ongoing rush of oxytocin during sexual arousal plays a primary role in both male and female orgasmic experiences, the contractions of which are postulated to facilitate fertilization. 

Not surprisingly, the delightful hormone that floods our brains and pervades our tissues during sexual stimulation also has the yummy effect of relieving stress, decreasing anxiety levels inducing a sense of calm contentment and obliterating fear. This hormone has been implicated in pair-bonding, social connectedness, and inhibition of the amygdala (the brain region associated with risk aversion and the flight-or-fight response). Recent studies demonstrate that a gene mutation that blocks oxytocin receptors is associated with autistic spectrum disorders as well as aggressive and anti-social behavior. In people without such a genetic mutation, normal oxytocin reception results in increased empathy and generosity--that is, big-heartedness.

While all of these lovely effects of the love-inducing, monogamy-encouraging hormone may have a secondary effect on the heart (from decreased stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure and reduced systemic cortisol levels), studies reveal a direct, demonstrable effect of oxytocin on the heart, such that higher levels of circulating oxytocin result in direct repair of cardiac tissue when damaged. When added to experimental equations, oxytocin directly enhances the success of tissue grafting within the heart, suggesting regenerative chemical properties when applied to cardiac tissue (just as a rebound relationship might mend a broken heart). Moreover, oxytocin, in addition to being released from the pituitary gland, is actually secreted directly from the heart, where it has a positive impact on blood pressure, inflammation and the destructive effects of free radicals, reducing the overall risk of heart disease. That oxytocin release prompted by your sweetie’s embrace is as good as your morning bowl of Wheaties in terms of cardioprotection.

So, go ahead, get it on. Skip your morning jog, bask in the oxytocin-colored glow of your dear one’s love, and rest easy knowing you’ve still done something good for your heart.