We also know that intimacy boosts the immune system, reduces anxiety, and acts as a buffer against depression, while separation—heartbreak, divorce, a miserable single life—can all bump up stress-hormone secretions. "The anxiety of uncertainty takes a toll," says Marianne Legato, MD, founder of the Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine at Columbia University. "Blood pressure rises, and we become prone to infection."
As women, we seem to be wired to register love's twists and turns with exquisite sensitivity. Our emotional hypervigilance helps us find mates and maintain relationships, but it also means we pay a penalty when things go wrong, says Legato. A woman who has had chest pain or a heart attack is nearly three times more likely to have a second cardiac event if she is experiencing marital stress, according to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Even in a happy partnership, the down times are harder on women's bodies than on men's. Research on newlyweds shows that when there are struggles and quarrels, the wife's immune system becomes more imperiled (increasing the risk of colds and infections) than the husband's.
Fortunately, relationship trouble doesn't have to make you physically ill. "It's when we feel hopeless, helpless, and defeated that stress levels stay elevated and health is affected," says Pamela Peeke, MD, assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. With that in mind, our LLuminari experts suggest how to take full advantage of love's medicinal benefits, and how to protect yourself in its absence.
If you're...so happy together
If you're...desperately seeking someone
If you're...staying at the Heartbreak Hotel
If you're...stuck in a bad relationship
If You're...So Happy Together
1. Get a bicycle built for two. Research shows that partners who exercise together continue to stay fit. "Routine and mutual encouragement are reinforcing," says Peeke. Sign up for a yoga or kickboxing class, take up tennis or squash so you can play against each other. Or invite him to join you in LLuminari's yearlong fitness plan with the goal of walking 10,000 steps a day (about four and a half miles) six days a week, along with doing a few at-home strength-building moves. This month try increasing your daily steps by another 500 each week.
2. Eat one scoop of ice cream to his four. For the average American woman, marriage comes with a mean gain of 19 pounds, according to a recent ten-year analysis of more than 9,000 adults. "When you get married, you have to reframe how you think about your weight, from wanting to be thin to attract a guy to having good health habits so you're happy with yourself," says Alice Domar, PhD, director of the Mind/Body Center for Women's Health at Boston IVF. One partner's habits can't help affecting the other's. So introduce healthier foods—bring home chocolate sorbet instead of ice cream; if he gets French fries, ask him to eat them out of your sight, or just have a couple even if he encourages you to take more. "When he says he loves you no matter what size you are," adds Domar, "don't listen. Your health is more important than your size."
3. Use love as a motivator. "Anytime our endorphins get going, which they do in a good relationship, we have extra energy," says Mitzi Krockover, MD, founding Medical Director of the Iris Cantor-UCLA Women's Health Center and a new LLuminari member. Exploit romantic exhilaration by kicking up your exercise program. Now's the time to add weight training or extra cardio.
4. Share the load. A Swedish study of Volvo workers found that a man's stress-hormone level and blood pressure drop when he crosses the threshold of his home, while a woman's increase. So negotiate an equitable system for divvying up chores and responsibilities. For example, ask him to alternate cooking weeks with you or suggest that he do laundry in exchange for your expertise with a vacuum. Trust him to pick out a gift for your niece's graduation when you're pressed for time. Don't brood alone—include him in your concerns about your dad's illness or your boss's demands. "If there's someone to share a problem with, life doesn't feel so hopeless, and psychological and physical survival are improved," says Legato.
5. Get some air. Yes, intimacy is good for the immune system, but time alone is healthy for your mind and spirit. "Find things you can do and excel at on your own," says Legato. Weren't you once the ice-skating queen, the poetry genius, the community firebrand? Don't let that person disappear in the all-consuming rush of your relationship.
Next: If you're desperately seeking someone
If You're...Desperately Seeking Someone
1. Toss the no-good-men mantra. "When you concentrate on the negative, you isolate yourself," says Legato, "and isolation enhances depression, which compromises your immune system." Corny as it sounds, it really does take only one good man. When you catch yourself complaining about the dating pool, bite your tongue. Be a forensic romantic instead. Collect evidence that the world is a surprising place. Look at the terrific men the women around you have found. Read wedding announcements as everyday miracles. Ask yourself: Would Audrey Hepburn or Renée Zellweger want to play you as an embittered pill in the movie of your life? Expect magic.
2. Dine with a dog. "Love doesn't have to come in the form of a romantic partner to keep you healthy," says Nancy Snyderman, MD, head and neck surgeon at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, who is crazy about her horses. "Loving animals raises endorphins. People with pets are healthier and enjoy a higher quality of life."
3. Flirt with a friend. Do whatever it takes to get those juices flowing. There are many ways to enjoy men. You don't have to act on a mutual attraction to keep life interesting and vital.
4. Don't even go there...If the soundtrack inside your head goes something like "One more dead-in-the-water blind date; I'll never find true love; I must be unlovable; there's nothing I can do about it," you may be causing your stress hormones to stay elevated. When you hear yourself drifting into that dangerous hit parade, meditate, go for a run, bring flowers to a sick neighbor—anything to stop the tape and calm your body down.
5. Take action. Instead of dwelling on whether the glass is half full or half empty, get out and do something on your own behalf. "I was 29, single, and desperate," says Domar. "I went to a conference in Jamaica and told the teacher how badly I wanted to get engaged, with a diamond and sapphire ring. The teacher said, 'Why are you waiting for a man to buy you what you need?' The following day, I went out and bought myself a beautiful diamond and sapphire ring—I found a good deal. That ring became a symbol of my ability to make myself whole. I felt less frantic. The next man I met was my husband."
Next: If you're staying at the Heartbreak Hotel
If You're...Staying at the Heartbreak Hotel
1. Get off the subject. It takes real work to leave a lover and start all over again. During and after a breakup, remind yourself that you may be seeing everything in a negative light, says Krockover. To heal, try to jog your brain out of obsessing on the loss, and engage it in a positive activity. Indulge one of your passions by staying at home and reading Jane Austen. Leave town to volunteer for an archaeological dig and throw yourself into the unknown. Try a new challenge, perhaps, by learning Italian or taking up the clarinet. Happy, healthy love might find you while you're not even looking.
2. Eat a good dinner. Scientists don't need to conduct an elaborate study to tell us that when women feel unhappy, they skip dinner and load up on carbs and fat at night. "I seem to remember one period when all the women were dumped on Felicity, Friends, and Ally McBeal. Each one ended up reaching for the ice cream," says Domar. Ward off the midnight munchies by eating a well-balanced, high-protein dinner. A healthy lunch offers extra protection.
3. Chew the nonfat. "When stress hormones are high and our brain thinks we need a boatload of calories, tuna on greens just doesn't do it," says Peeke. "That's why God made gum. Chewy foods are what you want when anxiety rises." She suggests carrots dipped in hummus or a tablespoon and a half of natural peanut butter on a giant Wasa cracker.
4. Apply pleasure. "Women often say they feel like shadows after a divorce or a breakup, that they don't expect to see anything in a mirror," says Legato. Your body needs simple pleasure just to feel real to itself. "Reaffirm your sense of being valuable by giving yourself small, tangible gifts like a new haircut, a pedicure, an extra massage."
Next: If you're stuck in a bad relationship
If You're...Stuck in a Bad Relationship
1. Check your symptoms. Stomachaches, headaches, insomnia, and malaise may all be signs that you're in an unhealthy relationship. "Our body sometimes talks to us before our mind does," says Krockover. "When people aren't happy, they sometimes somatize,"expressing emotional distress in bodily symptoms. If you have physical complaints, see a doctor first, but if there's no obvious cause, look carefully at your love life.
2. Get help or get out. If your relationship is making you miserable or your partner is abusive, it will take a toll on your health. Anger and frustration raise stress-hormone levels. "Hostility can create an environment more conducive to heart attack," says Mehmet Oz, MD, director of the Cardiovascular Institute at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. "Heart vessels close or spasm. Platelets become even stickier and close up arteries." Talk to a good friend or a counselor about how best to get out of the situation. If your partner is violent, your life may be at risk.
Remember you have a choice. You may feel stuck—trapped in a bad relationship, grieving over a divorce, miserably and interminably single—but it is in your power, and your best health interest, to choose joy. Okay, so you can't find romance. Or your soul mate doesn't feel the same way about you. But you can put yourself in the path of happiness. You can fall in love with life.
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