Yesterday, while eating dinner with a group of friends, one noticed my plate, filled with a serving of cooked carrots I wasn’t eating or (planned to), jokingly said to me twice, “Eat your carrots.  They’re good for you!”  A few minutes later he kindly scolded me again, “I see you haven’t eaten them.  Eat your carrots!  You of all people should know the importance of preventing macular degeneration and that’s what carrots do!”

While I was impressed with his knowledge of lutein and beta-carotene, I didn’t eat them, I shared that I’d already had 2 quarts of carrot juice that week, and I prefer raw carrots or carrot juice compared to cooked ones.  He wasn’t hearing it—he reminded me, like my mother used to that I still needed to eat what was on my plate (I didn’t).

I thought of him today, while listening to Dr. Christiane Northrup, discuss the impact of our social network (I’m speaking offline, relationships) has on our health, and my friend Bill came to mind.

His words reminded me of the significant role our healthy and meaningful relationships play in our lives.  It is important that we know we have people who care enough for us in our lives to encourage us to do something healthy, like eating our carrots, even when we don’t want to, or ending a harmful behavior, like smoking and drinking.  But also, and even more importantly, the mere quality of our relationships (the presence of loving support and empathy) is far greater than the number of relationships that we have.

In my book Superhealing: Engaging Your Mind, Body and Spirit to Create Optimal Health and Well-being,  I write about a great example found in the ground-breaking research conducted over thirty years in Roseto, Pennsylvania, that evaluated and determined the social cohesiveness (i.e., relationships and sense of belonging) of this community, comprised of Italian immigrants, despite numerous risks factors, protected them against the development of heart disease, and as they became more Americanized, even while reducing other risk factors, their incidence of heart disease increased.

Also, the latest studies bear witness to the power that our relationships have on our health and well-being, and the harmful impact the absence of social support has as well.  The most important aspect is the presence of love and empathy, not the number, or what they do—but the quality.

While several reports indicate social support is not only essential but critical for maintaining physical and psychological health, as well as the harmful consequences of their absence, or poor social support, the protective effects of good social support in mental illness have been well documented.  Social support may alter our vulnerabilities  (genetic, developmental and environmental ) and enhance our resilience to stress, possibly due to its effects on  pathways in the brain that play a role in stress, in particular the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) system, the noradrenergic system, and central oxytocin pathways.

Social connections like these not only give us pleasure, they also influence our long-term health in ways every bit as powerful as adequate sleep, a good diet, and not smoking.  Dozens of studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer.

The absence of relationships is linked to depression and age-related cognitive decline, as well as with a shortened life span, i.e., death.  A meta-analysis (a review of several studies)  examined findings involving almost 309,000 people,  determined that the absence of strong relationships increased the risk of premature death from all causes (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc.) by 50% — a risk fact almost equivalent to smoking ¾ of a pack of cigarettes, and more harmful than  obesity and physical inactivity!