Mates can make you healthier

When talking about men’s health there’s a major factor no doctor in the world can prescribe: Friendship!

Talking to US based Men’sHealth, Dr Robin Dunbar, one of the world’s top researchers on friendship, says it’s is one of the easiest ways to boost health and happiness. The issue he says, is that survey after survey shows that more than half of men are feeling lonely and many of admit to fewer close friendships than in years past.

There are a variety of causes.  A new job, new relationship or kids have come into the equation.  A house move or change of city for a job can all be factors.

The other reality is that as men get older we seem to get lazier about devoting time and effort to maintaining friendships or forging new ones.  Social-media “friends” just don’t cut it, and the shift of working from home is also considered to have had a big impact.  All of which may explain the growing epidemic of loneliness among younger men.

Dr. Dunbar is an evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University and penned Friends: Understanding the Power of Our Most Important Relationships. He argues friendships improve our lives because they produce happy brain chemicals or endorphins. Friendships also give us that so necessary “shoulder to cry on”.

Major health benefits from friendships

And here’s the real up side according to Dr Dunbar.  If you have strong friendships you are less likely to catch a cold than those who socially isolate.  You will have a lower risk of dying from heart disease and cancer and less likely to suffer depression.  And he says there’s a tsunami of research showing that your mental and physical health and well-being, and even how long you live into the future are best predicted by the number of friendships you have.

2010 meta-analysis of 148 studies — looking at the data of 308,849 people in total — found that participants with stronger social relationships had a 50% higher chance of survival over an average of 7.5 years than those without. 

We all do it at times: neglect friendships.  But putting the effort into reconnecting and nurturing those relationships might be one of the best steps guys can pays off for men in so many ways.


Why are friendships good for us?

So all the evidence suggests that socialization benefits both our mental and physical health. But why? The key could be oxytocin.

Oxytocin is a hormone and neurotransmitter, produced in the hypothalamus. It is involved in childbirth and lactation, but is also associated with empathy, generosity and trust, all of which are key factors in friendships.

One study  found that oxytocin was vital for social recognition in rodents, and this effect was also seen in people.  Another where researchers administered oxytocin to people via a nasal spray, found that this increased trust and made them more willing to accept social risks.

But why does oxytocin have physical benefits?

These are likely to be due to its effect on cortisol — the stress hormone. Participants in a study who received oxytocin intranasally had lower levels of cortisol than those who received a placebo when subjected to the stress of public speaking.

The adrenal glands release cortisol when a person is under stress. This is good for emergency situations as it prepares us for action, but bad when it occurs long-term. Among other things, long-term high cortisol can cause high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and fatigue.

So keeping cortisol levels down is a good idea. That is where socialization comes in. When we are relaxed during positive social interactions our bodies release oxytocin, so cortisol levels drop, and perhaps with them, also our blood pressure.