Many years ago, I read about a fascinating study that was conducted at Ohio State University several times because the researchers could not believe their remarkable finding.  While testing a cholesterol lowering drug and its effect in rabbits, a portion of the rabbit had absolutely no signs of hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) and heart disease, despite eating a high cholesterol, high fat diet.  They knew the drug wasn’t the cause–Was it the drug or sometime else that prevented the development of these anticipated results?

Something amazing occurred with rabbits in a study at Ohio State University that baffled the researchers. The rabbits were being fed a high-fat diet to test a new cholesterol-lowering drug. Based on earlier findings, the researchers expected highly predictable results. But this was not the case. Despite their unhealthy diet, certain rabbits had a significantly reduced incidence of hardening of the arteries sign of heart disease. The scientists couldn’t figure out why; they didn’t have a clue what was going on in their own lab.

The researchers had anticipated that there would be some lessening of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) because of the drug, but they had never seen animals fed such a high-fat diet show not even minimal signs of heart disease. By comparing the disease-free rabbits to the other rabbits that were on the same regimen, they knew it wasn’t genetic. Nor was it was due to their sex; some were male and some were female.

So what caused these particular rabbits to not develop heart disease in a tightly controlled and monitored lab setting? What factor defied the expectations? The researchers conducted a painstaking review of the procedures and of everything that had happened to these rabbits. They couldn’t or wouldn’t believe the apparent reason. Here’s what stymied them.

The rabbits were kept in rows of cages stacked on top of one another. The lab technician who fed them was a short woman, and the researchers discovered that she would take only the rabbits on the lower tier out of their cages and hold them, pet them, and talk to them while they ate. No one wanted to believe that loving the rabbits while they ate would affect their physiology as dramatically as it did. So the researchers repeated the test twice more and got the same results. The petting continued to be the sole protective factor.

The Healing Power of Love

Something profound happened to the petted animals. I believe it is compelling evidence of the power of love. The feeling of being loved that they got from the lab technician’s demonstrations of attention and affection changed their physiology despite the fact that they were not living a normal rabbit’s life. Those few moments of petting while eating a very damaging diet altered their physiology in a very positive way.

Years earlier, I was intrigued by a similarly fascinating study about touch. During my junior year in college, while taking a child psychology course, I learned something that to this day continues to haunt me with awe and sadness. Baby primates and humans will die if they are not touched, even if they receive proper nutrition. They wither away from a condition known as failure to thrive.

Being touched lovingly can reduce one’s blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol level and can trigger the release of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, and endorphins, the natural opiates that help the body’s cells function more efficiently.

The Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine has conducted more than 100 studies on touch and discovered proof of its significant health-enhancing effects, including weight gain and growth in premature babies, improved functioning of cancer patients’ immune systems, reduced pain, lower glucose (sugar) levels in diabetic children, and decreased autoimmune disease symptoms.

Other studies have scientifically determined that emotions can be expressed by touch. Researchers at DePaul University in Indiana evaluated people being touched by strangers they could not see. The one doing the touching was directed to attempt to communicate a particular emotion, and the majority of those being touched were able to accurately determine the emotional state of the toucher. This suggests that we can communicate several distinct emotions through touch: love, gratitude, anger, disgust, fear, and sympathy. This study also suggests that touch is a much more meaningful method of communication than previously considered. It may be that touch heals but that it needs the person doing the touching to be in the right mood. That may explain why a mother’s hug can literally “make it better.” How often do mothers say, “Let me kiss it and make it better” when their children skin their knees?

The United States has been found to be one of the cultures with the least amount of touching, compared to others. For example, Dr. Tiffany Field and associates at the Touch Research Institute observed teenagers at McDonald’s restaurants in Miami and Paris to measure how much they touched and engaged in aggressive behavior during their interactions. American teens spent much less time touching, embracing, and stroking their friends compared to their French counterparts, although they engaged in more self-touching. The Americans were also more physically and verbally aggressive. Preschool children in the two countries were then observed while playing outside with their friends and their parents. Again, the American children were more aggressive toward both their parents and their friends and touched them less. 

The Power of Loving Relationships

While  touch is a powerful aspect of our communication with others, our relationships are also central to superhealing. We exist in a relational universe—that is, everything exists in relation to everything else—and this framework gives meaning and perspective to life.

As a species, humans are social beings. (This also applies to some animals, such as elephants and dolphins.) Relationships are the fundamental way we express love, and it has been proved that healthy relationships have a tremendous positive effect on our well-being. Isolation and adversarial relationships contribute to physical decline and psychological turmoil.

From the moment of conception to the time of death, relationships are a pervasive and encompassing part of life, serving many important functions. Social isolation is a significant health risk. Researchers made a dramatic finding in the 1980s when, after following thousands of residents of Alameda County, California, for several years, they determined social isolation to be a significant risk factor for all diseases, including heart disease. Since then, others scientists around the world have confirmed a link between the lack of social support and the development of heart disease in humans and animals.7

Did you know that supportive relationships are the strongest predictor of good health throughout the course of our lives? Family ties and friendships enhance our health and exert one of the most potent protective mechanisms against the development of disease. Examples abound, from the healing power of social support to the benefits of a happy marriage.

A study of patients recovering from heart attacks found that those with lower   amounts of emotional support were nearly three times as likely to die in six months as those with higher levels of emotional support. Social support is linked to lower death rates from a variety of other diseases, and there is relatively strong evidence linking it to aspects of the functioning of the cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune systems. Death from conditions of these systems occurs more often among people who are isolated. In fact, isolation is considered to be a comparable risk factor to smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, and high blood pressure. The quantity and quality of our social relationships are related not only to the prevention of disease but also to longevity. Isolation was defined, as being physically apart, i.e., separated from others to the extreme.  While there are certainly people who prefer to be alone, most don’t, and the physical and perception of separation from others, and the absence of emotional support, are powerful determinants of health.

Studies have shown that in general, married people tend to be healthier and happier than those who are single. For example, a supportive, happy marriage is linked with greater longevity after a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, faster recovery from an injury, and a lower risk of infection. A loving wife is also associated with a decreased risk of men developing ulcers. In another study, a wife’s love was associated with a 50 percent reduction of angina (chest pain) compared to that experienced by those who felt unloved and unsupported.

Depression is a significant risk factor for coronary artery disease and heart attacks. Studies have looked at participation in voluntary associations and religious groups, the number of close friendships, and the distance from one’s primary source of support as significant predictors of the development of the symptoms of depression. Depression has been linked to the size of a person’s social network; the fewer the number of friends, the greater the chance of developing depression. Studies on the health-enhancing value of support groups have documented their positive effects on reversing heart disease (in conjunction with diet modification, relaxation, and physical activity) and on extending life in terminally ill cancer patients.

One of the most fascinating studies I’ve ever read involved the residents of Roseto, a small town in Pennsylvania. Early in the 1960s, this small town became well-known to the national medical community because the residents had a very low incidence of heart disease despite the fact that they ate a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet and drank alcohol on a regular basis. Researchers sought to discover the cause of this unusual phenomenon and concluded that the supportive, interactive, and close-knit nature of the town’s primarily Italian American population created an immunity to heart disease. The protection from heart disease occurred because these immigrants still maintained an Italian lifestyle, including very strong familial and social ties .

Researchers predicted that the rate of heart disease would increase as the town’s citizens adopted a more Americanized lifestyle, and that is exactly what they found when they returned in the mid-1970s. During the 1980s, cholesterol education programs and other public health measures lowered the incidence of heart disease nationally. However, when researchers returned to Roseto yet again in 1985, they found that despite decreases in fat intake and the smoking rate among its inhabitants, the occurrence of heart disease continued to climb there. They concluded that the population’s assimilation of American-style conspicuous consumption and materialism had prevented the expected decline in heart disease.15

Japanese culture is also characterized by a high degree of social support. There is evidence that this may contribute to the low rate of heart disease in Japan and among Japanese Americans, who, as their Italian American counterparts in Roseto once did, still retain their traditional culture.

All this research suggesting that the coming together and breaking apart   of social relationships have important physiological consequences in humans and other animals. Creating and sustaining supportive and enduring relationships triggers reward pathways in our brains that allow love to motivate and delight us. They also suppress the pathways that make us more judgmental and likely to experience negative emotions.

It hurts most when we are rejected—both when we reject ourselves and when others do it to us. In fact, social pain is relieved by the same drugs that relieve physical pain, because the pathways that cause physical and emotional pain overlap in our brains.

So it should come as no surprise that healthy relationships are a cornerstone of our well-being; they improve our lives significantly, not only emotionally but physically as well. Social bonding and soothing behaviors relieve the damaging effects of negative events and enhance our health. Healthy relationships buffer us from the stresses of life and diminish the stress response and activity in the autonomic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. This is the endocrine system that responds to stress, by releasing hormones that instruct our cells to change their normal functioning and prepare to run or fight.  Our sense of connection to others helps to diminish our usual response to stress and to pain.

Source: SuperHealing: Engaging Your Body, Mind, and Spirit to Create Optimal Health and Well-Being