Having a good cry can be a healthy way to rid our bodies of stress and toxins. Here, we take a look at the eye-opening health benefits of crying.
Tears of joy, tears of sadness—any way they roll, having a good cry can be a healthy way to rid our bodies of stress and toxins. Here, we take a look at the eye-opening health benefits of crying.
Read it and weep
Crying when we’re happy is socially acceptable, but crying in public when we’re sad is not. “It appears that crying with tears is predominantly meant for interactions with familiar people—we do not want to cry in the presence of strangers,” says Ad Vingerhoets, PhD, author of Why Only Humans Weep: Unravelling the Mysteries of Tears (Oxford University Press, 2013).
“Crying people are perceived as agreeable, sensitive, and warm, but also less competent, emotionally unstable, weak, and even manipulative. Crying often arouses a lot of, and also quite contrasting, reactions.”
Under the microscope
Tears consist of a complex mix of antibacterial and antiviral proteins, hormones, fats, salt, and water. They’re produced by different glands that sit above and behind the eyeball and secrete the elements necessary to keep the eyes moist and protected. Lysozyme, a protein found in tears and saliva, breaks down bacterial walls to ward against infection. Other glands make fatty substances that help tears spread across the eyeballs and reduce the evaporation of tears to ward off dry eyes.
On average, women cry four times as often as men. It turns out the tear glands of men and women are anatomically different, allowing women to cry more easily. Men are reported to have larger tear ducts that enable them to get a handle on their emotions before tears escape.
Women also have 60 percent more prolactin, the hormone responsible for the production of breast milk and lactation. This could be the reason why women tear up more often than men, who have higher levels of testosterone, a hormone that may inhibit crying.
Crying isn’t just for babies
Our bodies instinctively know what we need—so when our emotions gear up for a good cry, it might be smart to just give in. “Crying stimulates the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, the part that is important for relaxation and recovery,” says Vingerhoets. “It generally results in a decreased, more relaxed heart rate. Some studies suggest crying may also have a positive effect on allergic skin reactions.”
Researchers have hypothesized crying might even stimulate the release of a substance that has antistress, anti-anxiety, and painkilling power. The connection makes sense—cry, and it brings relief.
Some worry that excessive crying may signal a depressive disorder, but that’s not necessarily true. People’s crying thresholds may be shorter when they are tired or sleep deprived, or longer if they are going through a traumatic experience. There are also differences in the tendency to cry. A touching television commercial may bring one person to tears while another may not even be affected.
Big boys don’t cry
Boys and girls cry with approximately the same frequency up to age 12. It’s what happens between the ages of 12 and 18 that affects their willingness to cry when they’re older.
“Young men start making the connection that if they separate themselves emotionally from their feelings, they most likely won’t cry,” says William H. Frey II, PhD, founder and co-director of the Alzheimer’s Research Center at Regions Hospital. “The problem is that knowing how you feel and being able to express that is really important to maintaining good relationships with others. People need to be able to communicate their feelings, and there’s a consequence to men separating themselves from their emotions.”
Can women encourage men to become criers when they may have gone 10 or 20 years without shedding a tear? “It’s difficult for men to regain that ability after they’ve gone years without doing so,” says Frey. “They can do it, but it requires getting back in touch with their feelings, which can be an uncomfortable and painful process.”
Not surprisingly, men tend to set certain standards for themselves when it comes to crying. “Males seek out a safe environment, meaning that no others are present,” says Vingerhoets. “If men do cry, only moist eyes seem acceptable—no tears or strong sobbing. Stopping themselves at the welling stage conveys, ‘I am a sensitive man, but I am in control of myself.’”
Crying is the new cardio
It seems exercise classes aren’t just about toning and tightening anymore. A weekly boot camp/yoga class in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighbourhood is giving participants a chance to leave something other than their sweat behind—an opportunity to cry, sob, or weep out their “emotional sludge,” as founder Taryn Toomey calls it.
Toomey encourages her students to relieve built-up stress through crying or even screaming out their pent-up emotions. Exercise studios are becoming one of the few public places where participants can unload by shedding tears and not be ashamed. Blame it on the endorphins!
Protect your peepers
Here’s a list of supplements to help healthy eyes produce tears whenever you call on them.
- Omega-3 fatty acids play a particular role in alleviating dry eyes.
- Vitamin A helps ensure healthy tear film, which is essential for clear vision.
- Carotenoids such as lutein and zeaxanthin protect the retina against light damage and age-related macular degeneration.
- Vitamin C can help lower the risk of developing cataracts and promotes healthy blood vessels in the eye.
- Zinc is a trace mineral that plays a helping role in bringing vitamin A from the liver to the retina, where melanin (a protective pigment in the eyes) is produced.