What is Kiss?
Everyone knows that kissing is good for your well-being, for your mood, and for your health. That is not one more urban myth but scientifically proven reality. But, let’s start from the basics. According to Wikipedia, a kiss is the act of pressing one's lips against the lips or other body parts of another or of an object. Cultural connotations of kissing vary widely. Depending on the culture and context, a kiss can express sentiments of love, passion, affection, respect, greeting, friendship, and good luck, among many others. In some situations a kiss is a ritual, formal or symbolic gesture indicating devotion, respect or greeting, as in the case of a bride and groom kissing at the conclusion of a wedding ceremony or national leaders kissing each other in greeting, and in many other situations.
Physiology of Kissing
Adrianne Blue’s 1997 book “On Kissing” outlines the physiology of kissing. Kissing is a highly coordinated exercise. You lean in, tilt your head to avoid a nose collision, and the muscles in your shoulder, neck and back are called into play as the brain’s motor center gears itself to the delicate task of steering the lips and tongue. Your lips are loaded with nerve endings, and as your mouth meets your partner’s, impulses fire through your neural network. Your brain tells your lungs to work harder, your heart to beat faster, your salivary glands to pump moisture into your mouth. Your jaw, the one movable bone in the human skull, hinges open as you extend your tongue.
Then, as tongues touch, neural signals go zipping along your spine, to your pancreas, your adrenal glands and pelvic nerve. Your arteries and veins dilate — your heart rate shoots up, maybe doubles. Your lips swell, and you get that pleasant tingling sensation in your private parts. The blood rushing to your skin’s surface makes you feel fevered, your face flushed. You may begin to sweat.
This ritual is what anthropologists call pre-copulatory activity, what sex manuals call foreplay and what Marvin Gaye calls getting it on. And getting it on is good for your health. In his book “Superimmunity,” Dr. Paul Pearsall says that sex in the context of a loving relationship boosts chemicals in your body that protect against disease. Doctors believe that physical touch itself boosts levels of the hormone oxytocin. Among other things, oxytocin boosts feelings of affection and promotes caretaking behavior, and synthetic oxytocin has been used to treat depression.
Therapeutic Effects of Kissing
From an aerobic standpoint, kissing is a workout: According to the 1991 Kinsey Institute New Report on Sex, a passionate kiss burns 6.4 calories per minute. (This compares to 11.2 calories per minute you burn jogging on a treadmill.) It takes only two muscles to purse your lips into a simple pucker, but a serious French kiss activates all 34 of your facial muscles, and the highest level of serious making out, properly done, engages every muscle and tendon in your body.
Kissing can slow the aging process — it tones your jaw and cheek muscles, reducing sagging. That extra saliva washes bacteria off your teeth, which can help break down oral plaque and prevent tooth decay, says Mathew Messina, DDS, a private practice dentist in Fairview Park, Ohio, and consumer advisor for the American Dental Association. "Still, I would not go around advocating kissing after meals instead of brushing," he says.
"Kissing is an exciting excursion into the sensual," says Joy Davidson, PhD, psychologist and clinical sexologist in Seattle. "If we happen to be connecting with someone we care about, it produces a sense of well-being and a kind of full-bodied pleasure." Kissing is also "a sensual meditation," she says. "It stops the buzz in your mind, it quells anxiety, and it heightens the experience of being present in the moment. It actually produces a lot of the physiological changes that meditation produces."
Kissing is a great stress-buster as it signals our brain to produce oxytocin, which makes us feel all warm and fuzzy, and the near-smile position of our mouth tricks our brain into feeling happy. Of course, if you're kissing someone, chances are you're in a good mood already. If we close our eyes and breathe deeply it relaxes us and if we are really excited, our hearts pump, pulses race, and we get a shot of adrenaline. The more intense the kiss, the more endorphins produced to make us feel good.
There are powerful proteins and protective bacteria in saliva that make it a natural antiseptic. New evidence suggests that these proteins even destroy HIV. Animals lick their wounds because saliva has healing qualities and acts like an antibiotic. When we swap spit with someone, we swap some of these healthy antibodies, increasing our immune systems. Kissing prevents the formation of the stress hormones, glucocorticoids, which are responsible for high blood pressure. Regular kissing has also been shown to lower blood pressure by maintaining stabilized cardiovascular activity, and lower cholesterol by production of antioxidants. Frequent kissers are less likely to suffer blood, bladder, and stomach problems. Weakening muscles and insomnia seem less likely as well. A study in Japan revealed that thirty minutes of intense kissing can relieve sneezing and sniffling, caused by allergies, by slowing down histamine production. Kissing is also supposed to cure hiccups.
Beyond the health benefits of the sexual kiss, the therapeutic power of a Platonic or familial kiss — its healing magic — can be traced to the accident-prone days of childhood. When you fell down and skinned your knee, when you pinched your fingers in the door jamb, when some schoolyard blooper launched you into a new realm of pain and humiliation — when you hurt yourself as a child, what did your mother do? She kissed the hurt away.
The chaste, nurturing kisses between parent and child build lifelong trust. “Kissing the pain away creates an emotional tie between mother and child that eases the suffering,” says Dr. Hyman Tolmas, clinical professor of pediatrics emeritus at Tulane University School of Medicine. “It’s better than medication at times. Everybody wants to be loved. It builds self-esteem.” He believes that children who have parental love demonstrated to them early on “grow up to be good parents themselves.”
Dr. Seth Prosterman, a clinical sexologist in San Francisco, agrees: “The displays of affection that parents do in front of their children are important as modeling. Family hugs, kisses — its all part of the nurturing that makes you feel secure.” And between romantic adults, says Prosterman, “Kissing is powerful in many different ways. A kiss can be healing, nurturing, bonding. All those psychological benefits translate into feeling healthier physically.”
According to Helen Friedman, a clinical psychologist in St. Louis, frequent kissing can lead to holistic healing. “The social support of a kiss is a buffer against stress — pain, too,” she says. “This showing of affection is a way to bond. And the need for human bonding is as basic as the need for food.”
That’s a uniquely fitting metaphor — the kiss as soul food — because anthropologists believe the custom of kissing originated in humans when cave-dwelling mothers would transfer food from their own mouths to their babies’ mouths, like birds, and adults learned to mimic the act.
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