Falling in love boosts women’s immune genes

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Falling in love may boost genes in women’s immune systems related to fighting infection, according to new research.

“What we found was that women who fell in love had increased activity of genes involved in antiviral defenses, compared to when they began the study,” says Damian Murray, an assistant professor in the School of Science and Engineering at Tulane University.

“No similar change was observed in women who did not fall in love. This could reflect a kind of a proactive response to anticipating future intimate contact, given that most viruses are spread via close physical contact. However, this increased activity of antiviral genes is also consistent with the biological preparation of the body for pregnancy. From this women-only sample, both of these interpretations remain possible,” he explains.

Participants had to report that they were not yet in love with their partners.

“A few years ago, Martie Haselton and I attended a talk by Steven Cole on the epigenetic and health consequences of being chronically lonely. Chronic inflammation is bad for health, and loneliness is one of the biggest predictors of mortality. Martie and I wondered if there could be a flipside to this ‘lonely’ epigenetics profile and we arrived at love.

“Is new romantic love the actual antithesis of loneliness? The answer depends on whom you ask, but we wanted to investigate whether new romantic love in new romantic relationships was associated with favorable health and a favorable immune-related epigenetic profile,” Murray says.

The 12-month paid study included both undergraduate and graduate students from the University of California, Los Angeles and centered on women only. A total of 47 women completed the research, which included blood draws and biweekly questionnaires. Depending upon their relationship timeline, women participated in the study for up to 24 months.

To be eligible to participate in the study, researchers only considered healthy women who were not taking drugs and were in a new romantic relationship. The researchers defined a new relationship as seeing someone less than a month, but the participants had to report that they were not yet in love with their partners.

“One of the biggest challenges was figuring out how we could access this fairly narrow population and be in the best position to make statistical inferences. We arrived at a two-year longitudinal study that would assess within-person change in gene expression over time,” Murray says.

“We put out flyers and women called or emailed us and were pre-screened. It was a challenge to recruit for this study. Over half the women we pre-screened had been seeing someone romantically for less than a month and reported already being in love with them, but by study completion we had a sample of 47 women who had completed at least two blood draws,” Murray says.

After completing a baseline blood draw, researchers gave the participants questionnaires every couple of weeks to answer specific life-event questions. One of the questions asked the participant if they had fallen in love with their partner. Reporting having fallen in love would lead to a second blood draw. When the participant reported that the relationship had broken up, they completed a third and final blood draw.

Upon completion, Murray circled back to the original thought that sparked the study and stated that new romantic love is probably not the antithesis of loneliness, subjectively speaking. There were no significant changes in self-reported loneliness or depressive symptoms between when women started the study and when they reported falling in love.

Going forward, Murray and his group hope to look at the longer-term epigenetic and health implications of love in a less acute way by analyzing people not just when they are newly in love, but also when they have been securely in love for an extended period. The follow-up study will feature both women and men.

“Ultimately, I think what we’d like to accomplish is to be able to map the physiological changes that accompany the initiation and progression of human romantic relationships and see how those have implications for both immediate and long-term health and how the epigenetic implications of love may facilitate pregnancy and reproduction,” Murray says.

The research appears in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Source: Tulane University