The Durk Pearson & Sandy Shaw®
Life Extension NewsTM
Volume 18 No. 2 • June 2015

Inflamed By Love

A poem by Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle) includes this line:

“Love is like a fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will.”

Curiously, it appears that, although Stendahl could have known nothing about inflammatory cytokines, love is very likely to be like a fever in the sense of representing a state of systemic inflammation.

The researchers who published a recent paper1 were studying the possibility that social interactions of various types, particularly negative and competitive interactions, would be associated with heightened proinflammatory cytokines. Subjects were 122 healthy young adults who kept diaries for 8 days that described positive, negative, and competitive social interactions. Within 4 days they were subject to the Trier Social Stress Test in which oral fluids were collected before a laboratory-imposed stressor and at two time points after the stressor and analyzed for inflammatory markers.

The results showed that leisure time competitive activities did not correlate with increased proinflammatory cytokine levels, but competing for another’s attention, such as (the paper states this explicitly) a ROMANTIC PARTNER is correlated with increased proinflammatory cytokine levels as was academic/work-related (i.e. bringing home the bacon) competitive events. The authors propose that the leisure time competitive activities may be perceived as challenging rather than threatening, whereas competing for the attention of a romantic partner or competition in an academic/work-related situation might be considered threatening.

The authors’ analysis of the results are also interesting and consistent with what we know about the regulation of inflammation. They note that social stress increases sympathetic nervous system activity—for example, rodent models of social stress have been shown to increase sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity, where SNS is based upon adrenergic neurotransmission, and to decrease parasympathetic activity (based upon cholinergic neurotransmission), which is inversely related to inflammation. The authors note, however, that only 522 competitive events (or an average of 4.28 per person) were reported and it would be helpful for looking at differences between different subtypes of competitive events if more participants were included.

Perhaps, then, the state of love that Stendahl called a “fever” might be mitigated by taking a supplement that increased parasympathetic nervous system activity, thereby reducing the hyperinflammatory state that love seems to induce in many as a response to the social stress it represents. It may seem strange to think of romantic “love” as a dysfunctional state that might be improved with appropriate “treatment” (in this case, a choline supplement or a cholinesterase inhibitor such as galantamine, which might help by increasing parasympathetic nervous system activity) but to many (if one is to judge by the book of love poems2 by famous poets that included the Stendahl poem the state of love can be almost akin to insanity, with alternating periods of ecstasy and agony. In another place (forget where at the moment), rock star Ted Nugent was quoted as saying that love was like a “tire iron,” presumably meaning that his experience of it was a bit overwhelming. Try a choline supplement, Ted, it might make the experience less stressful, more like a rubber mallet than a tire iron.

A couple of speculations: We wonder whether what is called “lovesickness” might be similar to the form of sickness behavior observed in animals and humans when they are in an inflammatory state with high levels of proinflammatory cytokines. One other oddity is that prolactin, another stress hormone that has proinflammatory effects,1 is released in large quantities during orgasm, adding yet another twist to the relationship between romantic love, sex, and inflammation.


  1. Chiang, Eisenberger, et al. Negative and competitive social interactions are related to heightened proinflammatory cytokine activity. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 109(6):1878–82 (2012).
  2. Love, a Book of Quotations, edited by Ann Braybrooks (Dover Publications, 2012).

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