We all know that we should exercise, eat sensibly, and generally take care of ourselves for good heart health. What might not be as clear is how good emotional health yields good health for the physical heart. With February being Heart Research month, it’s a great time to take a fresh look at how that happens.

Love between the molecules

There is exciting news! Groundbreaking research from the U.S. National Institute of Health has identified the biological mechanism that allows our emotional health to create good heart health. Candace Pert and her team have found a love affair going on within our molecules. Bits of protein on the ends of our cells form receptors, which collect chemical information our bodies need. But they can’t get it around to all the body alone; they need the help of ligands, which carry the information. Ligands – typically meaning, peptides and hormones within the body – bind with the receptors when they sense a good match in what Pert calls “love on a molecular level”.

But when we bottle things up and don’t talk them through, feel “down” for long periods of time, or don’t have good social support, we reduce the flow of peptides (ligands) coming through our body, which stresses our system causing, blockages and weakness. Suddenly our many receptors have no “lover” to mate with, but they still want to get matched up. So they bind with another type of ligand: viruses. The result is physical illness.

The emotional-heart health connection goes way back

Scientists and health researchers have long been gaining ground in understanding the connection between our emotional-hearts and our physical heart health. In the 1940s, William Reich claimed (unpopularly) that failure to express sexual emotions caused cancer. More recently, Dean Ornish and his researchers have noted:

“Study after study has shown that people who feel lonely, depressed, and isolated (i.e., who have poor emotional health) are many times more likely to get sick and die prematurely – not only of heart disease but from virtually all causes – than those who have a sense of connection, love, and community.” Ornish adds that “the ability to be intimate has long been seen as a key to emotional health; I believe it is essential to the health of our hearts as well.”

Men with depression, notes Dr Matthew Bambling, “have a 71% higher heart disease risk, and are more than twice as likely to die of heart disease as non-depressed men.” It’s not even necessary to have diagnosed depression. Ongoing anxiety, feelings of hopelessness and sadness can more than double the risk of coronary heart disease.

The physical connection with the mental/emotional level is often found in stress hormones. When we think depressing thoughts or experience anger, hostility, and frustration, our hypothalamus releases a corticotrophin-releasing hormone, which stimulates the release of cortisol and norepinephrine. When too many of these hormones are released, the body cannot balance itself. When this happens, chronically elevated levels of these hormones contribute to hypertension, insulin resistance, and diabetes: all well-known risk factors for heart disease. Stress is known to cause the body to take longer to clear heart-damaging fats from the bloodstream, and it also triggers a lack of blood flow to the heart, increasing the risk of death in people with heart disease.

What to do: the role of connection

The importance of exercise, eating sensibly, and generally taking care of ourselves for good heart health is already well known. What hasn’t been as well-understood is the connection between physical heart health and the strong social support found in satisfying life relationships, of all sorts. Positive emotional connections – whether it is more through a good network of family and friends, being a member of a community group, or simply joining clubs you like – gives significant protection from heart disease and can be beneficial for people who already have high blood pressure.

And there is more. As crucial as the outer connection (with other human beings) is to our heart health, the connection to our inner selves may be even more vital. If we must always receive outer validation rather than following the dictates of our heart, we create the stress that begins all the chain reactions I outlined above. Ayurvedic author David Frawley says “how we feel in our hearts is the measure of who we really are.”

So the next time you find yourself saying, “Oh, my heart’s not into that”, you might want to respect the feeling. Being true to your own heart reduces stress, ensuring your physical and emotional heart are in the best shape possible, and we now know that means your molecules are probably meshing well.

Written by Dr Meg Carbonatto B.S., M.A., and Ph.D.

This article was originally published in Asteron Life’s Balance Blog. AIPC regularly contributes to Balance’s wellbeing blog category.