How moods affect our health

Laughing is good for your heart but anger sends your blood pressure soaring. Anastasia Stephens explains

Tuesday 11 December 2007 01:00 GMT


As your irritation mounts, you can feel your blood pressure rising. And that's exactly what is happening to your body when you have an argument. The effects, it seems, can be lasting. In the week after the irritating incident, you just need to think about the argument and your blood pressure will rise again, according to research published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology. So if you've recently experienced a dispute, a seething irritation or a simple frustration, you could be best off forgetting about it.

A half-hour argument with your lover can also slow your body's ability to heal by at least a day. In couples who regularly argue, that healing time is doubled again. Researchers at Ohio State University discovered this by testing married couples with a suction device that created tiny blisters on their arm. When couples were then asked to talk about an area of disagreement that provoked strong emotions, the wounds took around 40 per cent longer to heal. This response, say researchers, was caused by a surge in cytokines immune-molecules that trigger inflammation. Chronic high levels of these are linked to arthritis, diabetes, heart-disease and cancer.


Researchers at the University of Pavia, in Italy, have found that falling in love raises levels of Nerve Growth Factor for about a year. This hormone-like substance helps to restore the nervous system and improves memory by triggering the growth of new brain cells. It is also associated with the feeling of being "loved-up" and contented, inducing a calming effect on the body and mind. Unfortunately, researchers found levels dropped after about a year the point at which feelings of romantic love fall away and reality kicks in.


The effects of constant pressure a form of chronic stress are well-known. Robert Sapolsky, professor of biological sciences at Stanford University and an authority on stress, puts it like this: "In fight-or-flight, your body turns off all the long-term building and repair projects," he says. "Constant high levels of cortisol take your body's eye off the ball. Memory and accuracy are both impaired. Patrols for invaders aren't sent out, you tire more easily, you can become depressed and reproduction gets downgraded." Exposed to chronic stress for years, high blood levels of glucose and fatty acids increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. A recent study at University College London found that stress raised cholesterol levels, another factor that increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.


Scientists at the University of California have discovered that laughter relaxes tense muscles, reduces production of stress-causing hormones, lowers blood pressure, and helps increase oxygen absorption in the blood. Cardiologists at the University of Maryland Medical Center found laughing can actually reduce the risk of heart attack by curbing unwanted stress, which can destroy the protective lining of blood vessels. A good giggle also burns calories since it's possible to move 400 muscles of the body when laughing. Some researchers estimate that laughing 100 times offers an aerobic workout equivalent to 10 minutes on a rowing machine or 15 minutes on an exercise bike.


It's hard to know what's best venting anger or holding it in, as both have negative effects. A long-term study in Michigan looked at reactions to authority figures who yelled at subjects for something they had not done. Women who suppressed their anger in confrontations had twice the risk of dying from conditions such as heart attack, stroke or cancer. Angry outbursts last only a few minutes, but can cause massive surges in adrenaline, blood pressure and heart rate, raising the risk of heart attack or stroke by up to five times in people over 50. Subtle forms of anger, including impatience, irritability and grouchiness, damage health, too these states are associated with anxiety, low mood and a higher infection risk due to depressed immunity.


When you cry, you really do cry out negative emotion. Dr William Frey, a US biochemist, compared the tears of women who cried for emotional reasons with those who cried on exposure to onions. Emotional tears were found to contain high levels of hormones and neurotransmitters associated with stress. They also led to lower blood pressure, pulse rate and more synchronised brain-wave patterns. Dr Frey concluded that the purpose of emotional crying is to remove stress chemicals. He says the continued presence of these substances when you hold tears in would keep you in a needless state of tension. Your body would then be prone to the negative effects of anxiety, including weakened immunity, impaired memory and poor digestion.


Of the human emotions, jealousy is one of the most powerful and painful and the most difficult to control. While men typically become jealous when they suspect sexual competition, women's jealousy is triggered by the suspicion of emotional betrayal. "Jealousy is a complex emotional mix of fear, stress and anger," says Dr Jane Flemming, a London-based GP. "These three states trigger the fight-or-flight response, usually in quite an intense way. Someone in the grip of jealousy will suffer raised blood pressure, heart-rate and adrenalin levels, weakened immunity, anxiety and probably insomnia."


According to Dr Hyla Cass, Professor of psychiatry at UCLA, it is oxytocin, the "bonding hormone", that makes a couple want to touch and cuddle. This, in turn, triggers the release of DHEA, an anti-ageing, anti-stress hormone that triggers cellular restoration in the body. Other forms of touch, including massage, have also been found to help the body heal. Dr Mehmet Ox, at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York, is using massage regularly on patients who've had open heart surgery and heart transplants. This is because results have shown that healing time and complications are greatly reduced.


Feeling thankful for what you've got, whether it be a partner, an achievement or simply being alive, is all it takes to boost immunity, lower blood pressure and speed healing throughout the body. Dr Rollin McCraty, of the Institute of HeartMath in the US, is studying the link between emotions and physical health. He has found that like love, gratitude and contentment all trigger oxytocin. "This is a bonding hormone secreted by the heart whenever you feel open and connected," says Dr McCraty. "It switches off stress by causing the nervous system to relax. Oxygenation to tissues increases significantly, as does healing. Looking at ECGs, we've found that gratitude also associated more harmonious electric activity around the heart and brain, states in which these organs can operate more effectively."


Depression, pessimism and apathy are all associated with low levels of serotonin and dopamine, which are feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain. "Serotonin plays a role in regulating pain-perception and could be the reason why 45 per cent of patients with depression suffer aches and pains," says Dr Jane Flemming. "Low mood is also linked to poor sleep, fatigue and sexual dysfunction. As serotonin is linked to feelings of desire, this, too, may be linked to low levels of brain-chemicals."

Mood medicine: how to manage your emotions

* Stop negative emotions in their tracks the longer you let them control your thoughts, the longer you'll suffer, psychologically and physically.

* If you catch yourself in an escalating argument or are feeling stressed, remove yourself from the situation and find a quiet spot. Take up to 15 deep breaths into your abdomen. Aim to centre yourself with the reassurance that all is well, and you are in control. This can lower your heartbeat rate and blood pressure almost immediately. If you're having an argument, walk back into the room for a discussion. If that isn't possible, leave.

* It's important to reduce stress. If you're working yourself up with tight deadlines, knock five items off your to-do list. Abdominal breathing is a vital part of turning around your feelings breathe deeply for a few minutes and you may relax and let go of worries.

* Visualising positive emotional states can induce them in the body, with beneficial effects on health. The mind cannot differentiate between an imagined state and a real "external" state. So, if you vividly imagine a positive state, you may experience the benefits as if they are real.

* Visualise yourself laughing, joyful and full of energy, while imagining the feeling itself the more vivid you make it, the more effective it will be. You can also repeat positive phrases to yourself such as: I feel happier and more carefree day by day. Repeating this kind of phrase can literally lift your spirits, your energy levels and your health.

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