I recently wrote about the health benefits of hugging, and I now feel motivated to move along to kissing. No worries; this is a family-oriented column, and I will change course for my next column. Let’s explore the popular field of philematology.
Is kissing good for our health? I was fortunate to run in the Boston Marathon again this year. Halfway into the 26.2-mile race, runners pass by Wellesley College. As you can imagine, by mile 13 it is definitely time for a boost. For over 100 years, the Wellesley College women have had an enormous cheering section for the runners. Not only do they scream and cheer, but some hold signs like “Come over and kiss me!” Keeping in mind that there are about 30,000 runners in the race, how would you like to be, say, the 100th person to kiss that wonderfully supportive Wellesley student? In this case, kissing is clearly not good for your health.
Since by one calculation, the average person may spend 20,000 minutes kissing in a lifetime, let’s move on to the many health benefits of kissing.
Serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin: Kissing, like hugging, causes the release of these “feel good” hormones. Kissing appears to activate the areas of the brain linked to reward and addiction. Serotonin elevates mood and can help spark obsessive thoughts about a partner. Dopamine is involved in craving and desire. Oxytocin brings calm, relaxation, and bonding.
Cortisol: Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone.” Levels decrease in both men and women after kissing. It’s relaxing!
Epinephrine: Kissing can cause epinephrine levels to rise, which leads to a reduction in the levels of the bad cholesterol LDL.
Sebum: Lips are densely packed with sensory neurons, which are stimulated by touch. When we kiss, glands release sebum, which mixes with our saliva. Researchers suggest that swapping sebum may help us to subconsciously assess the health and hormonal conditions of a partner before committing to sex or long-term involvement. There are likely additional chemical cues that help us size up potential mates.
Calories: A kiss may burn 8 to 16 calories. Still, let’s not plan on replacing our next workout.
Immune system: Kissing appears to boost the immune system and to reduce skin and nasal allergies. It raises the level of immunoglobulin A (IgA), which helps to fight off invading organisms, and reduces the level of immunoglobulin E (IgE), which stimulates allergic responses. Perhaps this helps us to explain why those who report frequent sexual activity take fewer sick days. Also, note that more than 700 types of bacteria have been found in the human mouth, and no two people have the same makeup of oral germs. Exchanging saliva introduces new bacteria, which helps to build immunity. When we kiss for more than 10 seconds, some 80 million bacteria can transfer between our partner and us. Many of these bacteria are helpful in balancing and regulating our immune system.
Teeth: Kissing leads to more saliva production, which helps to re-mineralize teeth and protect them from acid, resulting in fewer cavities. Saliva also helps to keep away plaque.
Heart disease: Kissing that leads to sexual activity may reduce the risk of developing heart disease due to its relaxation effects, ability to lower cortisol levels, raise oxytocin levels, dilate blood vessels, slow the heart rate, and lower blood pressure.
Pain: Kissing appears to reduce pain from a variety of causes, including migraines, menstrual cramps, and generalized arthritis pain, due to blood vessel dilation and the release of endorphins. Perhaps “Not tonight Honey, I have a headache,” should change to: “Honey, I have a headache. Come over and kiss me!”
Testosterone: A man’s saliva contains testosterone, and through kissing, it can be introduced into a partner’s mouth, where it is absorbed through the mucous membranes. Testosterone increases sex drive in both men and women, and may increase a woman’s arousal and the likelihood that she will engage in reproductive behavior.
Financial success: One study found that men who received a passionate kiss before they left for work earned more money. I suspect that the kiss represented a happy home life, a confident person, better self-esteem, and so many other factors that may contribute to financial success.
Kissing and hugging are forms of affection that not only have primal biological roots and procreational purposes, but can also have a very positive impact on our health. It’s easy to conclude that they offer the promise of a longer, healthier, and more enjoyable life.
Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.