Health Wise: Dr. Li-Yu Mitchell explores the health benefits of giving this Christmas season

 

Giving to others is not only good for your soul, it's good for your health.

As many of us struggled with finding the perfect gifts this holiday season for our friends and family -- braving traffic on South Broadway and dealing with crowded stores -- research indicates that there are true health benefits that make that hard work worthwhile.

Turns out the act of giving -- whether it's spending hard-earned money on a special gift, volunteering at your child's school, donating to a charitable foundation, or spending hours preparing that home-cooked Christmas feast for your family -- helps release "feel good" neurochemicals in your brain called endorphins (also known as your body's own "endogenous morphine").

A study from the National Institutes of Health shows that giving increases the release of endorphins. Researchers used functional MRIs on their subjects and demonstrated that the mesolimbic pathway (the area that produces endorphins) of the brains of those people who gave to various charities is very active.

Just as there is a "runner's high" that comes with exercise and endorphin release, scientists have coined a phrase called a "giver's high." It's the warm fuzzies you feel when you know you have made a positive impact on someone's life.

Measurable health benefits associated with giving include lowering blood pressure, increasing self esteem, decreasing depression, and increasing lifespan.

Increasing lifespan?

As human beings our need for having a connection to others is very strong and we are hardwired to want to care for one another. From practicing altruism -- giving of ourselves for the good of others -- people are engaged and active and feel a sense of purpose. This purpose boosts self-esteem, which in turn enhances mental and physical health.

A study from Carnegie Mellon University showed adults 50 years old or older who volunteered were 40 percent less likely than non-volunteers to develop high blood pressure. The definitive reasons for why volunteering is linked to better health outcomes, like lower blood pressure, is still not entirely clear. But, it could be that volunteering increases physical activity, especially among older adults who are retired and less active. And, the social interaction that comes with helping others is cited by several studies as to why the act of giving is beneficial to mental health.

Research has shown that the converse of giving can have detrimental health effects.

Social psychologist Liz Dunn reported a study in Scientific American about the harmful effects of stinginess. She examined test subjects and their cortisol levels when they gave away money versus when they kept money for themselves. The more money the test subjects chose to keep in the experiment, the more shame they felt about it, and the higher their cortisol levels rose. Cortisol is a hormone that rises with stress and has been linked to several health conditions.

So even after the ornaments and lights are safely packed away, let's not forget to continue our good will toward our family, friends, and perfect strangers. As a new year's resolution for 2017 consider making time for volunteering in an organization you are passionate about. Lead by example and teach your children what it is to give to others.

After all, those warm fuzzies really can do a lot of good for your health.

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Li-Yu Mitchell, MD, is a mother of three, a family physician and wound care specialist at ETMC Wound Healing Center, president-elect of the Smith County Medical Society and is on the steering committee for Texas Academy of Family Physicians, Rose Chapter.

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