Is love good medicine? When it comes to maintaining health, how does love compare to hygiene or diet? In “The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine,” author Anne Harrington provides some interesting answers.
In her chapter, “Healing Ties,” she highlights the famous 1945 studies of psychiatrist Rene Spitz whose data proved love to be a more health-promoting factor than hygiene in the care of children.
Harrington writes that Spitz conducted a study in two foundling homes. In one of the homes, infants “received excellent physical care in a scrupulously hygienic environment. Good hygiene, it was believed, was the key to good health.” Yet, the little ones were sadly given little individual love or attention. They were even kept isolated from one another by sheets hung over the sides of their cribs to prevent the possible spread of infection. The results of this care were tragic as the children grew to have a host of physical and mental problems. “When the children were between two and four years old, observers assumed they were seeing babies half that age. Finally, in spite of the scrupulous effort to maintain good hygiene, within two years 37 percent of the foundling children had died from infection.”
Spitz studied a second group with opposite conditions. These children grew up in a dirty and chaotic prison nursery. Harrington notes, “However, the mothers of these children (all of whom were prisoners) were permitted to spend a certain amount of time each day with their children, during which they lavished them with affection. The result? In spite of the dirt...not a single one of the second group of children succumbed to infection during the five year period of Spitz’s study. The mothers’ love had proven a better deterrent to infection than the most conscientious of good hygiene practices.”
In another study published in The Lancet, British nutritionist Elsie Widdowson shared her conclusions of a 1951 study on the effects of war rations on the health of children. Orphans in two different homes were given the same war rations, yet one group gained considerably more weight than the other. Vogelnest, the home with the more healthy children, was run by a loving matron and the other home by “a cold and erratic matron...who frequently terrorized and humiliated the children.” Halfway through the study, the loving matron left the Vogelnest orphanage and the other matron took over. Despite receiving extra war rations, the weight of the once thriving children fell sharply.
Harrington also shares that in 1998, “heart health expert Dean Ornish wrote that diet was still important in controlling heart disease, but it couldn’t compare with love: ‘Love and intimacy are among the most powerful factors in health and illness,’ he declared. ‘I am not aware of any other factor in medicine---not diet, not smoking, not exercise, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery--that has greater impact on our quality of life, incidence of illness, and premature death from all causes.’”
Although the previously mentioned studies related to young children, Harrington’s examples show the health benefits of love for all ages. For instance, she shares the work of University of Maryland psychiatrist James Lynch whose research in the 1970’s showed that “High, erratic heart rates of acutely ill and, sometimes, comatose patients in intensive care can be stabilized by asking a nurse to take the patients hand and speak to him or her in a caring way.”
There are many more interesting stories and studies by respected research scientists to be found in Harrington’s book. I'm particularly grateful for the clarity she brings to the health benefits of being in a loving mental environment.
This article first appeared on Blogcritics.org