Dr. Kim Foster: Wicked Health


The Health Benefits Of Touch

Hugging, touching, squeezing...

It's time to call attention to an under-recognized health habit—and this one is free, has no calories, and you won’t need to make a trip to the health food store OR to the gym to reap the benefits. I’m talking about cuddling. Human touch—and I’m not even talking sexual contact, necessarily—simply hugging, cuddling, and snuggling, conveys substantial health benefits.

Intuitively, it makes sense. We’re social creatures, and touch feels good, right? It’s something we experience right from day one, expressed in the bond between mother and baby. You may remember the nurses in your delivery suite helping you learn how to breastfeed, encouraging you to have lots of skin-skin contact with your baby to stimulate milk flow. It’s a beautiful thing. The process of lactation is immediate evidence that skin contact and physical touch stimulate real, physiologic change in our bodies.

So, how does human touch benefit us?

The key to the health boon of touching is the hormone oxytocin. The release of oxytocin is triggered by physical contact, hugs, and kisses. Oxytocin is the hormone that stimulates milk let-down, and it also dilates maternal skin blood vessels, which transfers a mother’s body warmth to her baby and improves a mother’s sense of well-being.

The connection between oxytocin and touch is well-documented. We also know that women who get the most hugs from their partners have the highest levels of oxytocin.

In terms of research into physical and emotional health benefits, oxytocin has been shown to: 

  • reduce blood pressure
  • generate feelings of mental and psychological well-being
  • play a key role in the emotional processes surrounding romantic love and bonding: trust, pleasure, sexual desire, commitment
  • inhibit salt-appetite (read: fewer Dorito cravings)
  • improve mood and anxiety. Specifically, people with low levels of oxytocin are more prone to clinical depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • lower cortisol levels, a stress hormone at the basis of inflammation, and many disease processes
  • reduce anxiety and fear, and increase trust
  • decrease sensitivity to pain.
  • improve wound healing
  • enhance social contact between individuals, and promote social cohesion

There is some theorizing that oxytocin might be the reason behind the health benefits of massage and other spa treatments. That’s right, I said the spa is good for you. 

Consider this my official prescription to cuddle with your Valentine. (And while you’re at it, be sure to indulge in my other valentine’s prescription: chocolate.