by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.
Could you imagine that something so delicate and sweet as a hug or a warm touch actually demonstrates measurable health benefits that boost your immune system?
Hugs not only build trust and relay a sense of safety with the right person, they also have a profound effect on the way our body defends itself against infection and illness, just like a vaccine.
Yes, hugs hold huge power not only in their emotional, feel-good effect, but, as you’ll see, physiologically too, beginning in the brain with some science smushed right in between that heartwarming embrace.
It all begins with the hormone oxytocin
Oxytocin is the hormone that makes your heart melt when you see puppies, kittens, and chubby babies.
It is also released in response to touch. That includes hugs, holding hands, massages, and petting your furry companion.
As you can see, the variety of touch extends beyond the bodacious beauty of hugs.
Oxytocin is a brain chemical that modulates many social behaviours, including maternal nurturing, pair bonding, social memory and support, and human trust, and down-regulates stress responses, including anxiety.
You see, oxytocin is a neuropeptide made in the brain – that means it acts as both a hormone and as a neurotransmitter, which is capable of sending information from your brain to your body.
Because it’s naturally secreted in the brain in response to touch, it’s also referred to as the “love or cuddle hormone”.
So how do cuddles help release oxytocin?
The skin contains a network of tiny structures, called Pacinian corpuscles, that sense touch and transmit messages to the brain through the vagus nerve. This nerve is connected to oxytocin receptors and a number of organs, including the heart. One aspect of the multiple benefits of touch is that when the vagus nerve is stimulated, it causes oxytocin to be released, which in turn produces the broad spectrum of health benefits.
Here’s a list of 4 of those benefits:
1. Hugs are good for your heart
When oxytocin is released in the body, it lowers three major things that benefit your heart: cortisol levels, heart rate, and blood pressure.
One study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that warm contact that includes hugs with a supportive partner may contribute to lower reactivity to stressful events and may mediate the benefit of marital support on better cardiovascular health.
2. Hugs make you less anxious
The emotional component of hugs alone can do wonders in quelling anxiety.
And, it’s that same oxytocin released from your hug that inspires positive thinking, enabling you to have a more optimistic attitude and encouraging a more open outlook on the world.
An interesting animal study published in Nature Neuroscience showed that pups who are highly nurtured by their mothers (through licking, grooming and nursing) tend to grow up to be calm adults, whereas the pups who receive little nurturing tend to grow up to be anxious.
3. Hugs help you live longer
Hugs help promote the relaxation response, which is a state of deep rest that can change your physical and emotional responses to stress.
The more relaxed your body is, the better it will respond to oxidative stress, as an example. This is where your body bears the burden of free radicals produced both in normal conditions and in times of stress.
More hugs and more relaxation helps balance us out and equals less telomere shortening and a longer, healthier life.
4. Hugs enhance your immune function
Research shows that the hugs hormone (oxytocin) is immuno-regulatory.
When we hug each other, or offer a warm touch, that embrace boosts the way we feel deep inside about ourselves and our place in the world. All of this has an even deeper meaning on the way our systems work with each other, including our immune system.
Have you ever had the experience of feeling down and out and thus noticed that a cold came on easier? This could be in relation to your immune system being compromised.
This also parallels with the way that hugs promote the relaxation response – they help to change the way your body handles both physical and social stresses, thus boosting your immune system naturally, to do the job it was designed to do!
Mom’s voice is as effective as hugs
This is too good to not include here.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggest that a few words from Mom can calm frayed nerves by stimulating the hormone, oxytocin.
In their study, even listening to Mom’s voice over the phone did the trick and it became clear that “a Mother’s voice can have the same effect as a hug, even if they’re not standing there,” according to the researchers.
That even goes for the emotional connection we can have with our own pets as guardians for them. If you have a pet perhaps you have experienced the joy of a purr or a cuddle when you hug or talk in that sweet, tender, lovable voice. Talk about a double oxytocin release from both yourself and your furry companion!
Having a pet boosts good feelings
Human–animal interaction has been shown to have positive effects on health and well-being in humans too.
The positive health consequences associated with this interaction may be caused by the release of oxytocin brought about by positive emotions such as affection and the physical interplay that takes place between the human and their pet.
Could you or someone close to you need a nice hug?
A brief 10-second hug each day can increase your levels of oxytocin, thus counteracting the effects of stress hormones. This correlates to the health of your heart, fatigue levels, amount of stress, and your general attitude in life – which all have a huge influence on the strength of your immune system too.
What do you think about the health benefits of hugs? Or even holding hands, mom’s voice, your furry pet, or a massage?
Please join the conversation below, I would love to hear from you. And please pass this onto someone who could use a virtual hug from you!