Playful, platonic, passionate, or parental, kisses transmit a surprising amount of information. In fact, they even play an evolutionary role in fertility. In spite of the old song, it turns out that a kiss is almost never “just a kiss.”
In the art and science of romance, there’s nothing more powerful than a kiss. There’s also little question that when a couple is trying to start a family, too often that all-mighty kiss becomes secondary (OK, it’s not really on the priority list at all) to ovulation cycles, egg dropping, and sperm counts. But that passionate make-out session you’re skipping may actually be one very important step in the process of conceiving a child.
It’s now widely agreed that stress can have a negative impact on fertility, but what’s not so well-known is that kissing may actually relieve it. “Higher anxiety and depression levels have been found in both partners of infertile couples,” says Mohit Khera, M.D., MPH, an assistant professor of urology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. “Studies have shown that emotional distress is associated with difficulty in conceiving.”
And kissing, the all-natural stress reliever, can help. “Relaxing and cuddling, especially with intimacy, can enhance fertility,” says Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D., author of From Fatigued to Fantastic! A kiss on the lips literally triggers the brain to secrete a rush of feel-good chemicals, including norepinephrine, dopamine, and phenylethylamine, explains Andréa Demirjian, author of Kissing: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About One of Life’s Sweetest Pleasures.
Kissing may also be “part of an evolved courtship strategy,” suggests Gordon G. Gallup, Jr., Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University at Albany in upstate New York, and primary author of a study published this past August in the online journal Evolutionary Psychology. When Gallup and his co-authors surveyed more than 1,000 University at Albany students, they found that a greater percentage of men preferred wetter, open-mouthed kisses than did women, whether early on in a courtship or in a long-term relationship.
One possible explanation for this difference may be that biology trumps romance. “A more moist kiss may signal to a male that the female is sexually receptive. Or, males may simply require greater salivary exchange to facilitate assessments of female fertility,” explains Susan Hughes, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania, and one of the study’s co-authors.
Breath odor and saliva, some studies suggest, may provide clues to a woman’s fertility. The rise in estrogen that occurs near the onset of menstruation triggers the shedding of body cells, and an increase in sulfur compounds in the mouth, each of which could cause unpleasant odors, Hughes explains. “Furthermore, females produce certain distinctive yet odorless molecules in saliva while ovulating that might be detected by males during kissing.” And male saliva contains measurable amounts of testosterone, which can affect libido. In other words, a kiss may “transmit[s] a sumptuous supply of data ranging from health, fertility, and commitment to sexual receptivity” as senior author Gallup told the Albany Times Union.
Isn’t It Romantic?
The earliest documentation of kissing dates as far back as 1500 B.C. Vedic Sanskrit texts from India refer to the custom of rubbing and pressing noses together as a sign of affection, especially between lovers, reports Vaughn Bryant, Ph.D., professor of anthropology at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, who has been researching kissing for over three decades. For the next few hundred years, other cultures also documented kissing. And then, in the 5th century A.D. or earlier, a holy man named Vatsyayana wrote the well-known text, the Kama Sutra. Bryant says that within the Kama Sutra there are more than 200 “sutras,” or passages, devoted to an explanation of how one should kiss a lover, including remarks on what response should be made by the one who is being kissed (i.e. quivering of the lower lip).
From there, kissing spread throughout cultures. The Greeks saw the kiss as a symbol of subordination and respect, says Bryant, who adds that it’s the Romans who should get the credit for popularizing the kiss throughout the Western world. The Romans, like the Greeks, greeted friends with kisses. But it was the early Christians who institutionalized kissing as a custom to seal a marriage—a “business kiss,” if you will.
Can a Kiss (Or More) a Day Keep the Doctor Away?
Whether or not it’s a prelude to pregnancy, a kiss can have “a number of health benefits,” claims Demirjian. “It can literally relieve headaches. [Kissing] puts you in a state of contentment. It lowers your blood pressure, makes your skin glow, makes you feel loved.”
In a study in Germany, men who kissed their wives before going to work lived an average of five years longer than those men who received no kiss, says Bryant.
And, of course, a kiss primes the body for the sexual act that may follow. “When you start kissing, the minute your lips are stimulated it starts sending signals to the brain,” says Demirjian. “Once the brain gets the signals that kissing is starting, it starts telling the heart to beat faster, the lungs to pump with more air, sex organs are looking to get stimulated, your arteries and veins dilate.... The anticipation of making love really does start with the kiss.”
In short, some serious kissing not only can improve your physical health but also your mental state of being, which could translate to possibly having an easier time at conception in the long run.
“Because intimacy and a couple’s desire to conceive are so inextricably entwined, passion is often an unnecessary sacrifice in the quest to start a family,” admits Sharon B. Jaffe, M.D., an infertility specialist at The Center for Reproductive Medicine in Orlando, Florida. “When it gets to this point, couples need to stop, take a deep breath, and remember why they started this journey in the first place.”
Kissing is one of the easiest things a couple can do to strengthen their bond. “Kissing is portable, biodegradable, and has a long shelf life,” Demirjian says. “It’s the universal tie that binds us.”
Written by Blake Miller