“If you live from your heart, it’s good for your heart!”
It’s quite a well-known saying in the village I grew up in, in the Forth Valley of central Scotland. I’ve heard my Mum say it a few times.
I think most of us have had the experience that kindness feels good. Some people get a nice, warm feeling in their chest when they help someone. But kindness does more than this. It has an actual physical impact on the heart.
There are studies that compare soft attitudes and behaviours, like empathy, kindness, compassion, gentleness, against harder attitudes like hostility and aggression. These studies find that softer behaviours help maintain a healthy heart. Hostility and aggression, on the other hand, are associated with cardiovascular disease.
In one study, for example, 150 couples were observed interacting and their attitudes and behaviours noted. Those who were found to be most hostile had high levels of coronary artery calcification. Those who were softer – who lived from the heart, so to speak – had healthy arteries, even after accounting for lifestyle.
There’s a few reasons for this kind of observation. One naturally assumes it’s because hostility and aggression create stress and the stress causes the negative effects. This does happen, but it plays a lesser role that one might imagine.
Stress itself doesn’t damage the cardiovascular system as rapidly. So what’s the different between general stress, say from struggling for money or having a difficult time at work, and stress due to hostility and aggression?
It’s primarily that hostility and aggression turn down levels of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a kindness hormone. It’s known by a few other affectionate names too – the bonding hormone, the love drug, the hugging hormone, the cuddle chemical. It’s produced due to the experience of kindness, love, warmth, affection, and other soft behaviours.
Crucially, oxytocin is a cardioprotective hormone. This means it protects the cardiovascular system. When we have plenty being produced, our hearts are more protected from things like stress and lifestyle effects. When our levels are supressed, we’re more at the mercy of stress and lifestyle effects.
It achieves cardioprotection in two ways. The first is by lowering blood pressure. It triggers the production of nitric oxide and ANP (atrial natriuretic peptide) in blood vessels, which causes them to dilate. Less effort is then required by the heart to pump blood, so blood pressure reduces.
The second way is that oxytocin is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. It counteracts oxidative stress (the formation of free radicals) and inflammation both in the cardiovascular system and the immune system. It is also immunoprotective for this latter reason.
Oxidative stress and inflammation, in time, can lead to hardening of the arteries, heart attack, and stroke. By helping to reduce these levels, oxytocin – our kindness hormone – helps protect us.
Of course, it doesn’t mean that a kind person can’t ever develop cardiovascular disease. We all probably know someone who has, or has had, heart problems yet they are a very kind person. Cardiovascular problems can develop for a lot of different reasons, including genetic factors, diet, lifestyle, and even due to environmental factors.
But kindness hormones lower the risk. This is key. It’s like having an umbrella to protect you from the rain. It lowers the risk of you getting wet but doesn’t prevent it altogether because rain can come in from the side or your brolly can turn inside out if it’s really windy.
But for the most part it helps and your risk of getting wet is much reduced when you put your umbrella up.
Similarly, kindness doesn’t stop you from ever having heart problems, but kindness hormones can lower the risk.
But unlike eating a better diet or taking supplements, you can’t eat or drink kindness hormones. The only way to get them circulating around your blood stream is to make them internally. And one of the easiest ways to do this is to lead with some softer behaviours.
So here’s a little heart health advice. Love, show empathy and compassion, exercise patience, listen to people when they need to talk, hug people, hug some more, then some more again, tell your loved ones that you love them, be kind. Do these things regularly and chances are you’ll be doing yourself some good.
So it’s probably fair to say that my mum and others in the village are right. If you live from your heart, it’s good for your heart.