How To Feel More Connected: The Effect Of Relationships | Chris Kresser

How Relationships Affect Health—and How to Feel More Connected

by Chris Kresser

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These people holding hands are likely experiencing a rush of hormones, which are integral players in how relationships affect health.
Our sense of touch—and its impact on our hormones—is an important component of how relationships affect health. iStock/PeopleImages

Following an ancestral lifestyle involves more than your diet and exercise regimen—it means matching your habits to our Paleo ancestors as closely as possible.

And, for much of human history, we lived in tight-knit, family-based kin groups. We kept contact with each other regularly, we worked together, and we relied on each other to survive. We are, after all, social creatures. When we feel connected, we thrive, and when we feel alone, we don’t.

Our personal relationships affect our health. Keep reading to find out how, and get four tips on cultivating more close connections in your life.

Humans didn’t evolve as solitary, disconnected creatures. We’re social, and we need close, personal relationships to thrive. Check out this article to find out how your relationships can impact your health, and get tips on cultivating more connection. #paleo #chriskresser

How Your Relationships Affect Your Health

Feeling alone and lacking close connections has dire consequences for your health. Socially isolated people have a higher risk of chronic disease and even death—and that’s after controlling for factors like smoking, alcohol consumption, and physical health. (1)

Lonely people have higher blood pressure, higher heart rates, and more atherosclerosis than people who have a good social support system. (2) They also show greater incidences of: (3)

Having a social support network, on the other hand, improves endocrine, immune, cardiovascular, and mental health and increases longevity. (4) People who are more integrated in society also show lower serum levels of inflammatory proteins. (5)

Social support—or lack thereof—is a greater predictor of overall survival than: (6)

  • Physical activity
  • Body mass index
  • Hypertension
  • Exposure to air pollution
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Smoking (up to 15 cigarettes per day!)

What’s more, the quality of your relationships matters. The positive health effects seem to fall away in negative relationships, which can actually increase your risk of death. (7)

It’s not fully understood how relationships affect health so dramatically. It could be that having access to emotional support from close friends and family helps to buffer the impact chronic stress can have on our lives. Or, perhaps that feeling of connectedness changes our mood and behavior for the better, which carries a host of physiological benefits. Either way, if you want to enjoy the health benefits close relationships can bring, you likely need to step outside of the modern lifestyle.

The Modern Lifestyle Is a Recipe for Disconnection

Even though technology has the power to connect us, even across the globe, we feel more isolated than ever. In fact, over the past 20 years, the number of Americans who say they don’t have a close confidant has increased threefold. (8) Many of us relocate frequently from place to place, we marry later in life—if at all—and we may raise our children and grow older far away from our own parents and siblings, in communities where we don’t always get to know our neighbors. Added to all that, we spend most of our waking hours working or glued to a screen, not socializing.

Compare that to a day in the life of one of our ancestors. They would’ve lived within an extended-family tribal group, not by themselves or in a single-family home. Their days would’ve involved a lot of relaxing, significant time interacting with other people, and some mild activity, like gathering food or building a shelter. They’d experience stressful events, too—maybe a hunt, or an attack from a predator—but that would probably be followed by another opportunity to relax, socialize, and interact with their tight-knit community.

That lifestyle, characterized by extended periods of rest and punctuated with short moments of stress, struck a balance between the fight-or-flight response and its opposite: the rest-and-digest response.

When stress triggers your fight-or-flight response, it activates your sympathetic nervous system. Your blood rushes to your muscles, lungs, and other vital areas, and you get a rush of energy and hormones designed to help you deal with whatever threat is facing you. By contrast, the rest-and-digest response activates the parasympathetic system, which has the opposite effect on your body:

  • It slows your respiration and heart rate down
  • Your blood pressure falls
  • Your blood flow to your skin, reproductive organs, and digestive tract picks up
  • Your stress hormones drop

Without that balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic response, that opportunity to rest and digest with our friends and loved ones, our bodies remain in a constant state of fight-or-flight readiness, and we experience the damaging effects of chronic stress. Connecting with people, and taking the time to rest and digest, can help you enter a parasympathetic state and manage that stress before it gets out of control.

Four Ways to Connect with People

Strong social connections can have as much impact on your physical health and longevity as your diet, exercise routine, and sleep habits. If you’re not as close to people as you would like to be, here are four ways to encourage intimacy and really connect with others.

1. Emphasize Touch

Touch is our most fundamental way of interacting with the world around us, but many of us are starved for it.

Dr. Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine and author of several books on this topic, writes that “touch hunger” is becoming an increasingly worse problem in our modern society. Emails, phone calls, text messages, and likes on social media just can’t compete with the extensive benefits of physical touch. Touch has the capacity to influence how we feel about our surroundings and the people around us, it creates bonds between couples, it communicates emotions, and it strengthens our relationships. (9)

Why does touch have such an impact on us? It releases oxytocin.

Oxytocin, also known as “the love hormone,” is associated with decreased stress, as well as feelings of trust, sexual desire, and a sense of bondedness among partners. (10, 11, 12, 13)

Low levels of oxytocin are connected with social isolation, as well as: (14)

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Psychiatric issues
  • Overall decreased quality of life

People who feel strongly connected with their partners, on the other hand, have higher levels of oxytocin. (15) Hugs, massage, and warm, physical contact have been shown to increase oxytocin levels, as well as lower blood pressure, reduce heart rate, and decrease the levels of hormones associated with stress. (16, 17, 18)

If you’re feeling starved for touch, try:

  • Hugging your friends, your family, and your acquaintances
  • Booking a massage or taking a class and practicing with a partner
  • Having sex—aside from being pleasurable, sex releases more oxytocin than any other activity (19)
  • Taking a partner yoga class
  • Dancing

Any activity that brings you in skin-to-skin contact with another person can release oxytocin and help you feel the beneficial effects of touch. Even a friendly handshake increases a sense of connectedness.

2. Build Intimate Relationships

While any positive personal connection is likely to bring you benefits, relationships that encourage deep feelings of trust, intimacy, and belonging have the greatest potential to better your health. (20) Relationships that provide “emotional support” are associated with lower blood pressure, as well as lower levels of inflammatory proteins and stress hormones. (21, 22, 23)

It’s important to note that negative relationships don’t offer these benefits. Hostile married couples tend to show higher levels of inflammatory proteins and, as I mentioned, higher risk of death overall. (24, 25)

If you’re lacking an intimate, emotionally supportive relationship, try:

  • Practicing honesty, openness, and vulnerability when you interact with people—that’s the best way to build trust
  • Putting yourself out there by surrounding yourself with people who share your values
  • Joining a networking group that meets face to face
  • Strengthening an existing relationship by scheduling a set time for intimacy with your partner, whether it’s a romantic dinner, a massage session, or a short walk together

If you’re currently in a relationship that’s struggling, I recommend seeking professional help from a marriage counselor or therapist. Negative relationships will hurt your health, not help it, and it’s worth it to try to get back to a place of mutual trust, understanding, and closeness. If, after you’ve sought help from a therapist, your relationship still feels toxic and harmful, don’t be a martyr. A separation or divorce, while frightening, could save your sanity—and, ultimately, your life.

3. Consider a Pet

Animal companions have been a part of the human experience for thousands of years. In fact, archaeological evidence shows that the domestication process that has brought us the modern dog may have already been in the works as long as 33,000 years ago. (26)

While there were utilitarian reasons that our ancestors domesticated animals—dogs make adept hunters and guardians, while cats offer effective pest control—there is, perhaps, a greater motivation behind it: as humans, we need to give and receive affection.

Animal companions are great at filling that role. Pets have the power to encourage us to exercise, they tend to lower our anxiety levels, and they provide us with unconditional love and companionship. Those benefits aren’t limited by the type of pet you choose, either—even watching fish in an aquarium can offer relaxation. (27)

Before you choose a furry—or scaly, or feathery—companion, consider these tips:

  • Find a pet that matches your lifestyle. A large, high-energy dog may fit right in with an active family, while a cat might be a better option for an apartment dweller. Look at your circumstances and consider your preferences to determine what type of pet could work for you.
  • Be willing to put the time and training in. Every pet requires care and attention. A healthy, well-trained companion is a source of joy—but an unruly pet could cause stress and frustration.
  • Make time to play. Regular playtime connects you with your pet—and carries a variety of benefits for you too.
  • Consider volunteering at a local animal shelter. If the time isn’t right for a pet, volunteering at a shelter can give you the chance to interact with animals and support a worthwhile cause.

4. Volunteer for a Cause You Believe In

Speaking of volunteering, it’s a great way to build relationships with like-minded people who care about the same things you do. Research also supports the idea that helping others can bring you feelings of satisfaction and happiness and improve your self-esteem. (28) People who give social support regularly have longer lives than those who don’t, and they’re less likely to suffer from a chronic disease. (29)

As many of you can probably attest, giving to others can make you feel a sense of purpose, which makes life more meaningful.

Ready to start giving? Be sure to:

  • Look for a cause that aligns with your values, whether it’s secular or faith-based
  • Do it in person so you can get all the benefits of interacting with others face to face
  • Don’t overextend yourself, or you could risk adding to your stress levels

How Connection Helped Me Regain My Health

I’ve struggled with chronic illness. I fought for years to get my health back. During that time, I felt discouraged, exhausted, and completely demoralized. I had tried everything—diets, supplements, and specialists—but nothing worked. I lost the energy to try yet another diet or supplement. I was at the end of my rope.

So, with nothing else to try, I did something radical: I focused almost entirely on cultivating personal connections and pleasure. I let my supplements and diet plans take a backseat as I practiced massage, took acting classes, scheduled regular visits with friends, danced, and volunteered as a meditation teacher at a county jail.

I felt like a completely different person after just a few months. Not only was I happier, calmer, and more relaxed, but my digestion got better, I gained back around 10 pounds I’d lost during my illness, and I slept better than I had in a long time. I stopped feeling so alienated and alone. I felt vital and healthy again.

A healthy diet and regular exercise are, of course, crucial components of ancestral health. But enjoying close, personal relationships with others is also important. It can even help fortify you on your journey to get well.

Now’s your chance to connect with your fellow readers. Have you been able to build warm, fulfilling relationships? What helped you, and what advice do you have for others? Comment below and let us know!

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