Yes, there are butterflies in your stomach, but there's all kinds of bacteria at work, too.
We’ve all heard a lot about the dangers of loneliness to human health and wellness, especially now that loneliness is now being considered an epidemic. So it’s not exactly surprising that the world’s longest-running study on health and happiness found, over eight decades, that what keeps us happiest and healthiest are healthy relationships.
I know, it’s not exactly an earth-shattering study. But what is fascinating is this article at Hyperbiotics that breaks down the effects that intimate relationships have on gut bacteria — and lemme tell y’all, kissing isn’t just for kicks.
Being in a relationship supports your immune response by increasing levels of Immunoglobulin A (IgA), an antibody found in mucous membranes that fights antigens within the body — such as in the membrane lining the gastrointestinal tract. It basically gives your immune system the benefit of the upper hand when it comes to invaders (and the majority of the immune system lives within the gut). What’s more, healthy relationships can lower stress levels, which is associated with a healthy microbiome.
And just as in the case of kids being able to enrich the diversity of their gut bacteria through socializing, adults in a relationship also naturally trade bacteria back and forth through their physical contact. Everyone’s microbiome is unique, meaning that they have an individualized mix of bacterial strains. Kissing and skin-to-skin touch allow different strains of bacteria to spread from body to body, naturally diversifying the microbiome.
Immunoglobulin A is the body’s first line of defense against cold and flu viruses, and intimate relationships measurably boost IgA levels — although researchers haven’t figured out exactly how.
What they do know is that skin-to-skin contact — everything from holding hands to full-body hugs — releases oxytocin and reduces cortisol levels. That’s why your kids climb up into your lap when they’re feeling stressed out or they’ve had a hard day — they know, intuitively, that being cuddled will make them feel better. And you know, intuitively, that it will make them feel better too (even when you’re all touched-out!).
And just as families swap illnesses (as anyone who’s lived through cold and flu season with many children can attest), they also swap gut bacteria. Kisses and skin-to-skin contact allow foreign gut bacteria to spread from person to person, which is great — the rule of thumb for gut bacteria is the more diverse, the better.
This is also a great way to freak out your teenager if you happen to catch them lingering on the front porch after a date for a stolen kiss. Just pop open the door and commend them soundly for being so committed to diversifying their gut bacteria. Like this:
“Hannah, I’m happy to see you and Jeremy exchanging gut bacteria with each other through your shared saliva! I had no idea your young man was so committed to diversifying his microbiome (and yours!), but way to pick a winner, honey!”
See? That’s like, A+ level teenage mortification skillz right there. I cannot wait to try it out on my kids.
But even if you’re not in a committed relationship or you don’t have lots of littles running around, you can still get the bacterial benefits of healthy relationships. Don’t be afraid to hug your friends or shake hands with a stranger. Offer to hold your friend’s baby or lend a hand to help an old lady cross the street. In short, don’t be afraid to touch people — your body and your mind need human contact to survive and thrive.