Thank you, Science.
I opened the mailbox last week and pulled out a thin envelope from the hospital reminding me that it was time for my annual mammogram. The prevalence of breast cancer among my friends reminds me to be ever-vigilant. I dutifully scheduled an appointment and added it to my calendar because, well, health.
Later that day, my eye caught this happy article: “Taking a Trip with Your Girlfriends is Good for your Health, Says Science.”
What a shock, said no woman ever.
But, really – let that headline sink in for a moment: science concluded that friendships with women are good for you. Not just in the “Chicken Soup for the Mother’s Soul” kind of way, but in the respected-medical-journals kind of way. Don’t have time to do the research? Allow me to summarize. From U.C.L.A. to Harvard to Michigan State, scientists have made significant positive correlations between our health and our female friendships. In short, having friends is good. Really good.
Much of the studies’ findings centered around oxytocin – a neurotransmitter and hormone. Oxytocin is golden. We want our brains to be awash in it.
Why is oxytocin so magical? According to the National Institute of Health, “oxytocin can induce anti-stress-like effects such as reduction of blood pressure, … [and it] increases pain thresholds, exerts an anxiolytic-like effect, and stimulates various types of positive social interaction.” When oxytocin enters the bloodstream, it impacts the uterus (it’s what drives the drug Pitocin to induce labor), but when it is released into certain parts of the brain, it positively impacts our emotional, cognitive, and social behaviors – the trifecta of our psychological well-being. Some people call oxytocin the “cuddle hormone” and link it to romantic love.
Funny story, though. Scientists at U.C.L.A. found that this “love hormone” travels a tougher road when it is released around men. Testosterone appears to tap down its production. Our estrogen-producing gal pals, on the other hand, enhance the benefits of oxytocin. That means that when oxytocin-producing women are around other women, more oxytocin is released, which further counters stress and produces a calming effect.
It’s not just your imagination. Hanging with girlfriends truly helps us feel better.
Along with enhancing the oxytocin elixir, further studies have shown that friendships reduce our risk of disease by lowering our blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol. Our friends help us live longer – risk of death and longevity of life is linked to the presence of positive friendships in our lives. Further, fewer physical ailments, as well as a higher presence of joy, are recorded among aging women who have nurtured friendships throughout their lives. The results were so significant that the health risks of smoking and obesity ranked alongside reports of having no close friends.
It’s vital to note that UCLA, Harvard, and Michigan State studies gathered their data from friendships with face-to-face contact. While it may be delightful that we can virtually enjoy pictures of our friends’ kids and their adventures, Facebook and Instagram friendships are not enough. While gathering together via online communities can help us share our burdens, glean information, and inspire one another, public posts can not replicate the kind of connections created in person. Extrapolate from there, and it’s not a stretch to see the medically-positive benefits of a girl’s weekend.
Let me leave you with this thought. No one feels guilty for scheduling a mammogram. We don’t apologize to our husbands that we have to go get tested. We don’t feel bad that our kids won’t be with us while we take care of our perfunctory health tests.
Let’s stop feeling guilty for needing time with our girlfriends. Let’s remember that scheduling that cup of coffee with a favorite friend is a verified and tested health precaution. And repeat after me: a weekend away with the girls doesn’t just make mom happier – it makes her healthier.
Everyone has some thoughts about health care reform. I propose we start legislating the following medical updates – and that one fine day, you’ll be greeted by this reminder in your mailbox:
You are past due for your annual gathering with your girlfriends!
Don’t risk your mental health, heart health, and life expectancy.
Call your friends and schedule your weekend today.