Health Take-Away: A kind heart is a healthy heart
A growing body of clinical research shows that regular expressions and demonstrations of love, friendship and basic human kindness can have a greater impact on our health — particularly our cardiovascular health — than just about anything that happens in the doctor's office.
There's a proven physiological phenomenon at play here. When we allow ourselves to be kind, repeatedly engaging in random acts of kindness, we actually create neural pathways that enhance feelings of well-being and the natural flow of endorphins, which are natural painkillers and mood enhancers within the body. Acts of kindness generate emotional warmth. Emotional warmth produces the hormone oxytocin in the brain and heart, traveling throughout our bodies via our blood vessels. Oxytocin, sometimes called the "love hormone," causes the release of a chemical called nitric oxide in our blood vessels, dilating and expanding them. This reduces blood pressure, and it's one reason oxytocin is considered a cardio-protective hormone.
Achieving the heart health benefits of kindness doesn't have to involve major acts of philanthropy or selflessness, although those things absolutely are good for you and certainly for others. Even the simplest acts of kindness - holding the door for someone, saying hello to a stranger, doing the dishes without being asked, striking up a nice conversation with the clerk at the grocery store — can have an additive positive effect on your emotional and physical well-being. Those small, day-to-day acts of kindness add up, creating a pattern that's beneficial to your own health and the lives of others. There's also a ripple effect. Kindness is contagious. The recipients of your acts of kindness may very well become inspired to do the same to others, and the cycle of kindness continues. Even witnessing others performing acts of kindness can trigger the effect.
The role of oxytocin in enhancing heart health actually was first observed in the early 1990s. Researchers noted that lactating women, who generate high levels of oxytocin, tended to have significantly lower blood pressure than other women and men. Intrigued by that, researchers began looking more closely into the effects of oxytocin on the heart and blood vessels. Among other interesting results, they found that oxytocin appears to limit and lower levels of inflammation in the body, as well as free radicals, which are unstable atoms that can damage cells, causing aging and illness, including heart disease. Inflammation and free radicals together are two major contributors to coronary artery disease. Excess inflammation alone prompts the buildup of arterial plaque that can cause heart attacks.
The health benefits of kindness go beyond the heart. Studies have shown that kindness also plays a role in reducing pain, stress, anxiety and depression. It also has been found to increase levels of energy, pleasure, self-esteem, optimism and general happiness. It even has been linked to a longer lifespan.
In addition to the heart-helping oxytocin, kindness also triggers the production of serotonin, another natural chemical believed to improve and regulate mood, social behavior, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory, and other functions.
Performing and seeing simple acts of kindness gives us a sense of peace and happiness. It renews our faith in human nature. It connects us to others in a meaningful way. Physiologically, it actually bolsters our immune system and our cardiovascular resilience. And it's free. No co-pay. No deductible. It's an efficient, deeply satisfying way to improve your health.
And remember — experiencing the heart health and other benefits of kindness doesn't require great acts of social sainthood. It's basically about treating others with the same simple respect, kindness and thoughtfulness you hope to receive yourself. By showing your heart to others, you strengthen your own.
Maureen Daniels is the director of Wellness at Work at Berkshire Health Systems.
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