What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Suanne Lewis 11/07

In the present health care delivery culture of 10-minute physician consultations plied only after prior referral and managed care approval, where is there room for love, compassion, or the milk of human kindness? Documentation, performance improvement, efficiency, more with less, and the science of medicine argue for objective, dispassionate deliveries of health service with a predictable range of recovery, don’t they? The answer is, “yes and no.” Yes, efficiency, predictability, and quantifiable results have traditionally been essential to a scientific, goal driven delivery of medical services; however, the “no” part of the answer is the basis for the rest of the article.

Some physicians specializing in such areas as cardiac health, like Dean Ornish, have produced compelling data about the importance of love and supportive relationships in the prevention and treatment of serious, life threatening diseases. Over the past several years there have been many research facilities that have documented amazing results. Brian Luke Seaward during his presentation at a recent Medicine and Religion Institute held in the county, stressed the inclusion of mind, body, as well as spirit to maintain and improve our overall health state, citing Bruce Lipton’s work in the Biology of Belief, asserting that every cell is influenced by its environment. While every cell can promote growth and protect itself, it can’t do both simultaneously. Seaward pointed out that the presence of stress and worry and the lack of humor, compassion, and sense of meaningful purpose in life are toxic to our overall health, with the body being the last place in which disease shows up.

Dean Ornish, M.D., who is well known for his successful work in developing lifestyle changes, such as diet and exercise for cardiac patients, stated in his book, Love and Survival, “I have found that perhaps the most powerful intervention-and the most meaningful for me and for most of the people with whom I work, including staff and patients-is the healing power of love and intimacy, and the emotional and spiritual transformations that often result from these.”

Ornish described myriad research studies citing the positive influence of supportive relationships in recovering from severe cardiac conditions. In one such study, in which effects of a beta-blocker was being studied for 2,300 men who had survived a heart attack, the psychosocial effects of isolation and stress had a much more powerful effect on premature deaths than the drug being tested. Even when controlling for high risk factors such as genetics, smoking, diet, weight, and so on, those men classified as socially isolated with high levels of life stress had more than four times the risk of death than those with low levels of stress and isolation.

Early experience of parental support and care was shown to be predictive of long-term health. Ornish described one long-term project studying medical students and their perspectives on whether or not they had supportive, caring parental relationships. Researchers found that only 24 percent of students with high positive perceptions of parental caring became sick at midlife, while 94 percent of those with low positive perceptions of parental caring were sick in midlife. In several studies, supportive relationships were found to positively affect the immune system, with more hostile relationships causing research subjects to be more susceptible to colds and flu, for example.

Several compelling studies examined the effects of support groups for cancer patients. In one such project, women with metastatic breast cancer were randomly assigned to either a weekly support group, which met for one year or to another group that did not meet. Five years later, the researchers found that women who participated in the support group lived twice as long as those who did not. The only variable in the study found to make a difference in survival was the weekly support group.

An interesting animal study, reported by Dr. Ornish, examined the results of physical affection on the development of cardiac risk factors. Laboratory rabbits were studied to determine the effects of a diet high in cholesterol on the development of atherosclerosis. The rabbits, which were kept stacked in cages, were genetically comparable and all fed the same diet. All were expected to react the same way, but the rabbits on the bottom cage levels developed far fewer artery blockages than those stacked on the top cages in the lab. When all factors were examined, the researchers found that the only aspect that was different for the bottom rabbits that remained healthier was that the lab technician played with the rabbits in the lower level cages when she fed them because she could reach them easily. In an extension of this study, the lab animals that received attention, play and affection, developed 60% less plaque than the animals that were ignored. Alternatively, many studies of human heart attack survivors were cited showing that the survival rate of those patients with pets at home was significantly higher than those without, despite severity of symptoms.

As a final example of how relationships affect our health, the Roseto study of several years ago compared the incidence of heart attack in three towns, one of which was Roseto, a town in Eastern Pennsylvania, which at that time was predominantly Italian-American and retained a high level of social and ethnic homogeneity. All three towns used the same water supply, hospitals and physicians, and all had the same risk factors for heart disease such as high fat diet, smoking and so on. Roseto, however, had a markedly lower rate of heart attacks at that time. As the social cohesion and traditional practices of Roseto changed, and the number of three generational households declined over time, the rates of death due to heart attack in the town became comparable to its neighbors. Researchers surmised that over a period of three decades, despite the fact that individuals had cardiac risk factors, many did not succumb to myocardial infarction due to the protection of “a strong sense of connection and community.”

After conducting and reviewing numbers of research studies from across the world, Ornish concluded that love and relationships made a “powerful difference on the incidence of disease and premature death from virtually all causes.” When pressed to explain a scientific reason for the findings, he and his associates, while not entirely sure, postulated that energy is the key. When we love or are loved, we become open to the flow of life force energy, which nourishes our cells and tissues. Now this explanation may sound fairly unusual, and not at all as mechanistic as the fathers of modern medicine asserted but relatively new spheres of study such as cardio-energetics, physics and psychoneuroimmunology, for example, are experimenting and collecting data in these areas.

Paul Pearsall, PhD, a psychoneuroimmunologist ( licensed psychologist who has studied the relationship between the brain, immune system and our experiences of the outside world) has written a book called The Heart’s Code, in which he describes the immense energy and information transmission and cellular memory of the heart. Much of his research has its basis in study over many years of heart transplant survivors.

Experts in the field of cardio-energetics report that the biophysical energy and information of the heart travel throughout the body and beyond the protective layer of its skin to “loved ones, pets and plants” and beyond indefinitely at the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second. Pearsall suggests that the heart is the organ around which the rest of the body revolves, rather than the brain, as we have recently been led to believe. Researchers have measured the heart’s electro-magnetic field as five thousand times more powerful as the electromagnetic field created by the brain. Researchers in energy cardiology (the new physics, cardiology and biology) suggest that the heart is the primary generator of info-energy which constantly communicates with and regulates organs and cells throughout the body, and that we become physical representations of the cellular memories created in this system. “When the heart beats out its energy, it sends information and affects the ‘matter’ within us and outside of us…its energy transmission becomes highly influential for our body and all of the bodies around us.” Indeed, there are many heart transplant reports of transplant recipients having express memories of past events that only their donors or donor’s families would know and ­confirm.

Pearsall implies that in order to enjoy maximal health, people must be conscious, not only through the efforts of the brain, but also through brain/heart/body awareness. Pearsall describes the communication of the brain as direct, demanding, self-protective and vigilant, while communication from the heart as subtle yet energetic. Pearsall believes that if we attend to communication of the heart, we become in touch with the intuitive awareness of overall health of our body system, putting “heart” into the joy of living rather than focusing on trying to avoid dying. In essence cardio-energetic healing views illness as our body system being out of rhythm with the demands of the varied and chaotic rhythms of life around us. Healing then is comprised of the heart’s ability to improvise and develop its own new rhythms in response to the demands of our daily life.

Energy cardiology researchers are now measuring how our hearts communicate with one another, combining a series of measures, including electrical, magnetic, sound, temperature and various pressure changes. The essential finding is that the resonating energy of one person’s heart interacts with his/her own brain, other brains, and other hearts. They further postulate that each of us has our own heart signature or code that we constantly communicate to and receive from others. Sensitive heart transplant survivors were reported to accurately describe the location of close family members although their travel plans had changed, while one sensitive spouse of a heart donor in the chapel of a large hospital accurately reported the time of arrival of the heart’s recipient despite a change in schedule.

In an effort to avoid ignoring the brain in our discussion of love and its effects on health, Social Work Today (May/June 08) cited research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying how the “voluntary generation of compassion affects the brain systems involved in empathy.” Researchers used the definitions of loving-kindness to mean a wish for happiness for others and compassion as the wish to relieve others’ suffering. Brain areas, which were stimulated while new and experienced meditators engaged in compassion meditation, were areas linked to emotion sharing and empathy, such as detecting the emotional and mental state of others as well as detecting our own emotional reactions and making that information available to other parts of the brain. Experienced meditators produced a much greater response in these brain areas. Conclusions in these studies suggested that the capacity for empathy, which involves the regulation of thought and emotion, could be cultivated, promoting more harmonious relationships with oneself as well as others. Researchers were hopeful that developing this skill would have application in such challenging areas as the prevention or mediation of depression as well as preventing bullying and aggression in social contexts, such as in schools, for example.

So what real application does this information have for us? Learning more about these topics and watching for new developments might be worthwhile, but meanwhile we might desire or insist upon finding health care providers who show us concern and sincere respect. If we develop a serious illness, we might look for informational or support groups on a topic associated with our diagnosis and actually attend them. We might parent our children with special loving attention and intention. If we’re fortunate enough to have other intimate friendships and kinships, we might choose to communicate compassion and caring on a frequent basis. We might share love with other living creatures like pets, houseplants or volunteer organizations. As healthcare professionals, we might pay close attention to how we communicate to our clients and patients, ensuring that we touch others (literally or figuratively) in a loving, respectful way. When we’re alone, we might share love with ourselves and increase the level of compassion in the world, using the following loving-kindness meditation, based on a version offered by Trudy A. Goodman in the book, Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, edited by Christopher K Germer, Ronald D, Siegel, and Paul R. Fulton. ‘Find a comfortable, relaxed sitting posture and close your eyes. Remember something you did that makes you feel glad inside. Cross your hands on your heart and send a smile into your whole body. Relax and feel all warm and happy inside. Let the feeling of happiness, peace, kindness and love spread from your heart through your whole body. Next, send some loving-kindness, warmth, and happiness to someone in your family. Now send love to a pet, if you have one, or to a friend. You can send loving-kindness to your whole neighborhood, to your country, and the world. Send peace to all creatures. Concentrate your mind and heart, radiating friendliness and compassion in all directions, spreading out loving-kindness over the whole world.’

What does love have to do with health? Buckminster Fuller has said that 80% of reality cannot be perceived or detected by the five senses. So while we may not know exactly how love positively affects our health, we now know that it does.