Oxytocin. It is the scientific word for what is commonly known as “butterflies” of being in love. And, it is responsible for the warm, fuzzy feeling people have when they're close to friends and family—even pets—they hold dear.
The hormone acts through the dopamine reward system. Dopamine is a brain chemical that has an essential role in how pleasure is perceived, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Oxytocin can have measurable health impacts.
“It lowers the levels of stress hormones in the body, reducing blood pressure, improving mood, increasing tolerance for pain and perhaps even speeding how fast wounds heal,” the National Institutes of Health states. “It also seems to play an important role in our relationships. It's been linked, for example, to how much we trust others.”
Jean Lubeckis, therapist with Franciscan Alliance, said couples can't rely on hormones forever.
“As the relationship matures, it changes,” she said. “You have to have more connections in othe sorts of ways. It's my opinion that when people only have chemistry and no common bonds, then things don't tend to work out very well.”
Building connections can lead to better health outcomes.
One 2009 study out of UCLA exposed female volunteers to moderate pain on their forearm, using heat. When shown a picture of their boyfriend, the women reported less pain than when shown a picture of a stranger or a chair, according to the university.
Lubeckis referenced other studies that showed cholesterol levels dropped in people who wrote about the person they love for 20 minutes a day, for five weeks. And, people who kiss had improved physiological responses to stress and better immune resistance to allergens.
“Research supports that when you've got a good relationship, there are a lot of benefits,” Lubeckis said.
In recent studies on Alzheimer's disease, Lubeckis learned one preventive factor is strong connectedness to other people, socially.
Even healthy people need to have social connectedness to stay happy. Whether through blood relatives or friends who feel like family, social connections lead to a sense of safety, she said.
“People, overall, are happier when they feel they have someone they can rely on,” Lubeckis said.
Lubeckis worked with AIDS patients in the '90s. Social support was critical in helping them cope psychologically.
That can translate to almost any person with a critial illness, studies show.
“The people who do better ... always seem to fare better when there's a personal connection,” Lubeckis said.
Love also can be shown through appreciation, which can lead to improved feelings.
“When we feel appreciated, that makes us feel better,” Lubeckis said. “And it makes you feel like you want to help the other one.”
Supporting one another can lead to better health choices as well, one study shows.
Melissa Franks, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Purdue University in West Lafayette, said married people are likely to have similar health behaviors and that a married person's lifestyle decisions can influence their spouse.
Franks studies marriage and chronic illness management. She said if one spouse is trying to change a behavior, such as eating poorly, but the other one is not on board, it may affect the ability to change.