Friends with Benefits: How Pals Keep You Healthy

Support: Not only are you more inclined to turn to food when feeling lonely -- a diet sabotage -- but the therapy you get from talking through everyday problems with a friend can ward off more serious ones like depression or insomnia later, explains Michael Wetter, PsyD, chief of adult psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Hayward, California. What you get when you don't release your feelings regularly is a balloon-like effect where stress builds up and blood pressure rises, eventually triggering a number of negative consequences, including moodiness and poor sleep. The toll it can take on you physically could end up being far worse than your initial worries.

Accountability: In Jackson's study, women who reported more consistent connections with family and friends were also more likely to keep up with routine medical appointments, a finding that might explain why social connectivity has also been shown to reduce the risk of chronic illness and diseases such as cervical cancer in some women.

The friends you keep are more than just a byproduct of where you work or grew up; they are actually a survival mechanism, Dr. Wetter notes. Tom Hanks' desperate attempt at companionship with a volleyball in the movie Cast Away is an example Dr. Wetter uses to explain how friends are necessary for physical and mental well-being.

That sense of connection, experts say, develops after about a month of regular interpersonal contact, and can be nurtured in as little as 15 to 30 minutes a day. Brief chats with a friend or alone time with a spouse three to four times a week can do as much to boost your health as physical activity.

Even being in a crowded room with strangers can do the trick. So if you don't have a strong social network where you live, taking public transportation or heading out to a coffee shop with a good read may have a similarly soothing effect.

Reviewed by David Slotnick, M.D.

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