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[Science/Art] Love & The Immune System

An in-depth exploration into how falling in love can actually boost your immune system, a new article by resident creative Anna McLaughlin, a clinical neuroscience PhD student & science writer.

We’re all familiar with the pleasant sensations and feelings associated with falling in love, but did you know that love also has a powerful effect on upregulating your immune system? Or that your immune system influences who you fall in love with, in the first place?

David S. Goodsell - Escherichia coli (1999)

You might also be surprised to find out that the physical health benefits of falling in love aren’t limited to romantic love at all. Butterflies, increased heartbeat, rushes of euphoria and an intense preoccupation with the object of your desire are all familiar sensations that we associate with romantic love.

David S. Goodsell - Blood, 2000

These sensations are a result of complex interactions between your hormonal, neurotransmitter and adrenal systems. The neurochemical effect of love on the brain is so powerful that it’s comparable to addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

To fully explain this phenomenon, we first need to go back to basics and understand how scientists discovered that love is an evolutionary mechanism, which creates a cascade of beneficial physical processes in humans and animals. But why have humans adapted to fall in love in the first place?

David S. Goodsell - Immunological Synapse, 2020

From an evolutionary perspective, having one partner for an extended period is associated with a host of perks, including:

  • Increasing the likelihood that your offspring will survive past infancy (traditionally this may have meant finding enough food for your children, which in modern times is known as child support).

  • Conserves time (we all know how time-consuming dating is).

  • Saves metabolic energy (having multiple partners with multiple children is downright exhausting).

  • Increases the likelihood of your genes passing onto future generations (meaning it prevents you from dying alone without reproducing).

Romantic, right? In all seriousness, humans have essentially adapted to fall in love to ensure the survival of our species. You might have wondered, what makes you fall in love with one person, instead of another?

David S. Goodsell - Biosites: Red Blood Cell, 2005

One of the key factors that drives sexual compatibility is genetics and more precisely, genetic diversity. Genetic diversity means that the fewer genes you share with your partner, the better your sexual compatibility will be. Interestingly, the genes that seem to matter most for sexual compatibility are involved in immune system regulation, located in the major histocompatibility complex (MHC).

David S. Goodsell - Biosites: Nucleus, 2005

This evolutionary mechanism isn’t unique to humans either, as fish, mice and birds also tend to choose their mates based on genetic diversity in the MHC complex. Intuitively this makes sense, because the better your children’s immune systems are, the more likely they are to survive and have their own children. Studies have shown that if females have a partner that shares a great deal of similar genes, they are less sexually responsive and more likely to be attracted to men other than their partners. Genetically similar couples also have an increased likelihood of having sexual relationships with people other than their partners (being monogamous becomes more difficult).

David S. Goodsell - Biosites: Muscle, 2005

Being in love also has a direct effect on our immune systems. A genetic study performed over two years found that when women fell in love, their immune cells were genetically upregulated, similar to the immune response of your body fighting a virus. The rationale for this was that beginning a new relationship leads to close contact with a new partner, and therefore exposure to your partner’s pathogens (viruses and bacteria). Backing this up, couples in new romantic relationships had lower levels of the anti-inflammatory stress hormone cortisol. Interestingly, the better the relationship was, the lower their cortisol levels were.

David S. Goodsell - Biosites: Cytoplasm, 2005

In fact, studies have found that positive social behaviour and social support are associated with a reduction in cortisol and improved emotional wellbeing. Regardless of whether relationships are romantic or platonic, it’s the quality and nature of our social environment that influences how our immune system responds. While the example of how romantic love boosts immune system activity may demonstrate an exaggerated physical response, it reflects how positive social behaviour and loving relationships enhances our physical health. The effect is so strong that it can even alter our genes.

David S. Goodsell - Biosites: Blood Plasma, 2005

While social relationships are undeniably important, new research suggests fostering a positive mental outlook can be just as powerful. For example, studies have found that two specific types of meditation can reduce the amount of inflammatory proteins in our bloodstream and improve the activity of brain areas involved in emotional regulation.

The first, ‘loving-kindness meditation’, is based on cultivating unconditional kindness to others. The second, ‘compassion meditation’, aims to develop empathy for other beings (not just humans) and a genuine wish to ease their suffering. Beyond the biological effects, these two types of meditation also help people increase positive emotions, control anger, deal with conflict and better cope with emotional strain.

David S. Goodsell - Autophagy, 2011

Essentially, these examples demonstrate how humans evolved to depend on the experience of love as a way to ensure the survival of our species. Any activity that encourages kindness, compassion and empathy is a form of love. You can experience the same positive mental and physical benefits of love by practising meditation or creating genuine connections with your family, friends, community, or even your pet.

Going into 2021, many of us may have entered the new year with anxiety and trepidation. Given the current state of affairs, it’s evident that the increased social stress and lack of human connection is having a collective negative impact on people’s mental and physical health.

David S. Goodsell - Biosites: Basement Membrane, 2005

It's important to remember that we're not powerless in combating these harmful effects. Instead of focusing on how bad things may seem, we can instead focus on cultivating love in ourselves, our homes, and our communities. Beyond improving your emotional wellbeing and physical health, it will also help those around you.

So remember everyone, when Valentine’s day comes around don't forget to thank your partner for increasing your immunity to viral pathogens.

David S. Goodsell - Coronavirus (2020)

This article is illustrated with original paintings by David S. Goodsell PHD, an American molecular biologist, professor, artist and author who creates detailed watercolour paintings that visualise molecules and immune system cell interiors for the RCSB Protein Data Bank.

David S. Goodsell

David has been creating his "Molecular Landscapes" since the 1990's, his unique images provide an educational and easily accessible way of studying these fascinating and intricate structures. His meticulous artworks integrate information from structural biology, microscopy and biophysics to simulate detailed views of the molecular structure of living cells.

Please visit his official website for more artwork!

~ Psychic Garden


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