Why are hugs so good?
or many of us, if there’s one thing we’ve missed the most during the pandemic, it’s being able to kiss loved ones. Indeed, it was only when we lost our ability to embrace our friends and family that many of us realized how important contact is for many aspects of our health – including our mental health.
But now that vaccination programs are rolling out and restrictions are starting to ease across much of the UK, many of us will want to bring these hugs back into our lives. And the good news is that hugs not only feel great, but they also have a ton of health benefits.
The reason hugs feel so good has to do with our sense of touch. It is an extremely important sense that allows us not only to physically explore the world around us, but also to communicate with others by creating and maintain social ties.
Touch consists of two separate systems. The first is “quick touch”, a system of nerves that allows us to quickly detect contact (for example, if a fly lands on your nose, or if you touch something hot). The second system is “slow-touch”. This is a population of recently discovered nerves called c-tactile afferents, which deal with the emotional significance of touch.
These c-tactile afferents have essentially evolved into “cuddly nerves” and are usually activated by a very specific type of stimulation: a soft touch at skin temperature, the typical type of a hug or caress. We think of c-tactile afferents as the neural entry stage – the first port of call, if you wish – to signal the rewarding and pleasurable sensations of social tactile interactions, more commonly known as hugging and touching.
Touch is the first sense to start working in the uterus at around 14 weeks. From birth, the gentle caress of a parent has multiple health benefits, such as lower heart rate and promote the growth of brain cell connections.
When someone hugs us, the stimulation of c-tactile afferents in our skin sends signals through the spinal cord to the brain’s emotional processing networks. This induces a cascade of neurochemical signals, the health benefits of which are proven. Some of the neurochemicals include the hormone oxytocin, which plays an important role in social bonds, slows the heart rate and reduces stress and anxiety levels. The liberation of endorphins in the brain’s reward pathways supports the immediate feelings of pleasure and well-being derived from a hug or caress.
Hugs are so relaxing and calming that they also benefit our health in other ways.
It improves our sleep: Advantages of co-sleeping with infants cuddle your partnerSoft, soft touch is known to regulate our sleep because it lowers levels of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is a key regulator of our sleep-wake cycle, but also increases when we are stressed. So it’s no wonder that high stress levels can delay sleep and cause fragmentation. sleep patterns or insomnia.
It reduces reactivity to stress: Beyond the immediate soothing and pleasurable sensations provided by a hug, social contact also has long-term health benefits, which makes us less reactive to stress and build resilience.
Nourishing touch, during the early stages of development, produces higher levels of oxytocin receptors and lower levels of cortisol in areas of the brain that are vital for regulate emotions. Infants who receive high levels of nurturing contact grow up to be less responsive to stressors and lower anxiety levels.
Increases well-being and pleasure: Throughout our life, social contact unites us and helps us maintain our relations. As stated, this is because it releases endorphins, which makes us see cuddling and touching as rewarding. Touch provides the “glue” that binds us together, underpins our physical and emotional well-being.
And when touch is desired, the benefits are shared by both people in the exchange – it’s a two-way street. In fact, even petting your pet can have health and wellness benefits, with oxytocin levels both increasing. animal and owner.
It could help us fight infections: By regulating our hormones – including oxytocin and cortisol – touching and hugging can also affect our body’s immune response. While high levels of stress and anxiety can suppress our ability to fight infections, close, united relationships benefit health and well-being.
Research even suggests that cuddling in bed might protect us from colds. By monitoring the frequency of hugging in just over 400 adults who were subsequently exposed to a common cold virus, the researchers found that “huggers” won hands down by being less likely to catch a cold. And even if they did, they had less severe symptoms.
While it’s important that we continue to protect ourselves, it’s just as important not to give up cuddling forever. Social isolation and loneliness are known to increase our chances of premature death – and maybe future research should determine if it’s a lack of hugs or social contact that may be causing this. Touch is an instinct that is all around beneficial for our mental and physical health – so we should celebrate his return.
Of course, not everyone wants a hug. So, for those who don’t, there’s no reason to worry about not enjoying the benefits of hugs, because you can do it yourself. Hugging has been shown regulate emotional processes and reduce stress.
Francis McGlone is Professor of Neuroscience at John Moores University in Liverpool. Susannah Walker is Lecturer in Natural Sciences and Psychology at John Moores University in Liverpool. This article first appeared on The conversation.