By Ross Walker

Last Sunday was Valentine’s Day and it is, of course, the particular day when we focus our attention on matters of the heart and I am not referring to my particular medical specialty. 

I often state that happiness is the best drug on the planet. Strangely, a large study was reported late last year from the UK suggesting there is no relationship between unhappiness, stress and disease. I will address that (in my  view) very flawed study on another occasion, but, suffice to say, it is my opinion that there are overwhelming health benefits from being happy.

One of the major contributors to happiness is having a loving, supportive long term relationship with another human being. Valentine’s Day is a symbolic day where we can focus on these relationships and celebrate and value the benefits. At a scientific level, we are developing a deep understanding of the vital chemicals released into our brain and body when we are in love. There is a part of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens which is our pleasure centre. We have a variety of happy chemicals released every time we experience pleasure. Our happy chemicals include serotonin, which is felt to control our mood levels, dopamine which is squirted into the nucleus accumbens every time we experience acute pleasure but also oxytocin which is the ‘love hormone.’

Oxytocin, a peptide hormone, is involved in social interaction and the pleasure we derive from it. Thanks to its potential role in love,  its release during an infant sucking the mother’s nipples, other reproductive functions and social bonding – oxytocin has also been referred to as the ‘hug’ hormone, ‘moral molecule’ and ‘the chemical cuddle.’ 

Very closely linked to Oxytocin is the so-called ‘bliss molecule’ – anandamide, which is an endocannabinoid, inducing a natural high, working on the same receptors in the brain as illegal marijuana – THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) – without the potential nasty side effects of THC. Anandamide is named after the Sanskrit word for joy, bliss and delight. Recent work from Italy has shown a very strong link between Oxytocin and Anandamide release into the nucleus accumbens. 

Regardless of the specific detail of the chemicals involved in pleasure, joy, bliss, delight and social bonding, there have been numerous studies over the past few decades reinforcing the vital importance to health and wellbeing of a strong human connection.

So, when you are gazing at your lover across the table at your favourite romantic restaurant, whether it be Valentine’s Day or purely an excuse to spend some time together, don’t discount the enormous benefits at so many levels to you and your partner.