It’s been said that love or kindness can mend a broken heart. It’s true, and by this we generally mean emotionally. But there’s much more to it. Love and kindness also have a physical impact on the heart.
Let me explain. Everyone knows that stress creates stress hormones, like cortisol, adrenalin, and norepinephrine. But, to be clear, it’s not necessary for us to be facing a stressful event. Anticipating or recalling a stressful situation produces stress hormones. Similarly, how we feel in relation to a current stressful situation produces stress hormones. In other words, it’s not the situation itself, but how we feel in relation to it that generates stress hormones. Feelings are the key!
This is an important point. What about feelings of a different kind? What kind of hormones do they produce?
Well, love produces the love hormone, oxytocin. It’s been called by other names too! – the cuddle chemical or hugging hormone (because we produce it when we hug) and even the moral molecule or ‘trust me’ drug (because it promotes trust). I often refer to oxytocin as a ‘molecule of kindness’. The reason is that it is produced when we’re being genuinely kind.
Genuine kindness creates feelings of warmth and connection, as does love, and it is these feelings that produce oxytocin.
OK, so now we know that kindness produces oxytocin. How does that heal the body?
Well, oxytocin is a cardioprotective hormone. Cardioprotective means exactly what it says – protective towards the cardiovascular system. It provides this protection in a few ways.
First, it stimulates production of nitric oxide, which then dilates our arteries. The result is a reduction in blood pressure. This is a well-known strategy employed by cardiovascular drugs – to boost nitric oxide. It was one of the first strategies I learned when I worked in cardiovascular drug development, in fact. It is also the basis for how Viagra works. Outside it’s very well-known role, Viagra is also a cardiovascular drug.
Second, oxytocin acts as both an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory throughout the cardiovascular system. An antioxidant basically means it is anti (against) oxidation (or oxidative stress), more popularly known as ‘free radical’ damage. Free radicals harm the heart and arteries, which is why we’re encouraged to have antioxidants in our diets through eating vegetables, fruits, and things like cinnamon, dark chocolate, and even olive oil.
The anti-inflammatory part is vital too because inflammation plays a major role in cardiovascular disease. We generally focus so much on reducing cholesterol, but inflammation is just as much of an issue. In fact, an increase in cholesterol is often a side effect of inflammation.
So, given that oxytocin is such a potent cardioprotective hormone and that we produce it when we’re being genuinely kind, we can therefore say that kindness is cardioprotective – that kindness reduces blood pressure, acts as an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory.
Indeed, we’ve probably all felt that relaxing, calming sense that kindness brings, whether we’re the person being kind, the recipient of it, or even a witness to it, and even sometimes a warm feeling in the chest, which is caused by an oxytocin-stimulated increase in blood flow to the heart.
Furthermore, studies on the Buddhist, Loving-Kindness meditation, also known as metta bhavana, have shown potent anti-inflammatory effects. In research, people taught the meditation, where they cultivated feelings of kindness and compassion, were found to have a much lower inflammatory response to stress. Other research on the meditation showed increases in nitric oxide, undoubtedly due to increases in oxytocin.
So, kindness reduces blood pressure and causes antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. And there’s more. Oxytocin – our molecule of kindness also helps speed up wound healing. Under conditions when oxytocin levels are low, certain wounds can take longer to heal. Part of the reason for this is that oxytocin promotes angiogenesis – regrowth of blood vessels – which is vital to wound healing. When we get plenty of oxytocin in our bodies, wound healing is more at an optimum. Kindness really does heal!
Our molecule of kindness also plays a key role as an antioxidant in skin cells. Getting plenty of oxytocin into the skin slows the ageing of skin, in fact. We can’t eat or drink oxytocin; it’s not something we get from diet. We must produce it through how we feel, which is often a consequence of how we behave (i.e. kind or not). Therefore, there’s a strong case for the effect of being kind and how we age.
It makes a lot of sense when you think about it. We all know that stress can speed up ageing, and much of this is because stress increases free radicals and inflammation. In the skin, this accelerates ageing. And let me remind you that it’s the feelings of stress that are doing this. Swap stress for kindness, on the other hand, and the warm feelings of connection produce oxytocin, which is delivered to the skin, thus slowing the visible process of ageing.
Research now even shows that oxytocin plays a vital role in cardiomyogenesis – the growth of heart muscle cells. In fact, in the absence of enough oxytocin, cardiomyogenesis is significantly slowed. This effect is most pronounced in infants or young children who do not receive enough love. Their entire body, including the heart, grows at a slower rate (about 30% slower).
This lack of emotional warmth and loving contact significantly reduces levels of human growth hormone and oxytocin. In reference to research in this area, UNICEF wrote that, “For every three months that a young child resides in an institution, they lose one month of development.” Importantly, bringing a child into a warm emotional environment has positive effects on growth and development. Some research shows a massive catch up of growth when a child is fostered or adopted from an institution.
So, yes, love and kindness can mend a broken heart, but over and above the emotional healing, we have very positive physical effects too, on the heart and the whole body.
You may have noticed that I have referred to genuine kindness above as how we produce oxytocin. This is very important because, just like feelings of stress produce stress hormones, it is the feelings associated with kindness that produce oxytocin. The only way to get these warm feelings of connection is when the kindness is genuine. You must mean it, in other words.
Most of this research didn’t exist ten years ago, which is why it is not common knowledge, especially in professional circles and in mainstream health services. I believe it is time that we make it common knowledge then because it is hugely beneficial in our homes, for ourselves and our family members, in our workplaces, hospitals, and societies at large.
So, please feel free to share this article with friends, family, colleagues, and co-workers so that the information reaches the people it needs to reach. And in the process of going about your day today, be kind!
As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.”
All references cited above can be found in David R Hamilton, PhD., ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness‘