A Hug a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

By | October 25, 2018

When’s the last time you’ve gotten, or given, a hug? If it’s been awhile, committing to more hugging is a simple way to not only feel happier but also be physically healthier. Human touch is a complex phenomenon, one that’s linked to the release of feel-good hormones and other physiological reactions in your body.

Hugging is just one example, and it’s a powerful one. Even on particularly trying days, such as when you’re embroiled in relationship problems, a hug can improve your mood by increasing positive feelings and decreasing negative ones. This isn’t just hearsay; a recent study published in PLOS One revealed this intriguing fact after a study of more than 400 adults.1

Each was interviewed nightly for two weeks and asked about mood, any relationship conflicts and whether or not they’d received a hug. As expected, relationship conflict was associated with an increase in negative feelings while the opposite held true for hugs.

However, on days when the participants were in conflict but also received a hug, they reported more positive feelings than days when they did not get a hug — and the positive effect even continued on to the next day.

Study coauthor Michael Murphy, a postdoctoral researcher in Carnegie Mellon University’s Laboratory for the Study of Stress, Immunity and Disease, told Time, “A very simple, straightforward behavior — hugging — might be an effective way of supporting both men and women who are experiencing conflict in their relationships.”2

Hugging Reduces Stress

The reason behind hugs’ feel-good prowess isn’t entirely known, but the Carnegie Mellon researchers suggest one valuable facet is their ability to buffer against stressors. Specifically, hugs “increase perceptions of social support availability by tangibly conveying care and empathy without communicating to receivers that the receivers are ineffective.”3

In other words, wrapping your arms around somebody shows them physically that you care and are there for them, thereby reducing stress levels. Further, both the giver and the receiver of the hug may benefit. In a study of 20 romantic couples, one partner received a medical scan while the partner stood nearby receiving electric shocks.

When support giving, such as holding a partner’s arm while they’re in pain, occurred, activity increased in the brain’s ventral striatum, a reward-related region also involved in maternal behavior, as well as in the septal area, which is associated with maternal behavior and fear attenuation.4

This suggests that even the person doing the physical supporting experienced benefits akin with reduced stress. A 20-second hug, along with 10 minutes of hand-holding, also reduces the harmful physical effects of stress, including its impact on your blood pressure and heart rate. This makes sense, since hugging is known to lower levels of stress hormones like cortisol.

In fact, when such “warm partner contact” occurred prior to a stressful public speaking task, participants had lower blood pressure and heart rates than those who received no such contact.

“These findings suggest that affectionate relationships with a supportive partner may contribute to lower reactivity to stressful life events and may partially mediate the benefit of marital support on better cardiovascular health,” researchers noted.5

Hugging Is Good for Your Heart

January 21 is National Hugging Day, an event created by Kevin Zaborney of Caro, Michigan, reportedly to increase public displays of emotion. Zaborney believed that hugging could help facilitate human communication,6 although it’s also known to boost heart health.

In addition to lowering heart rate, “the positive emotional experience [of hugging] gives rise to biochemical and physiological reactions, such as a higher magnitude of plasma oxytocin, norepinephrine, cortisol and changes in blood pressure.”7

Research presented at the 2004 annual meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society also found that when couples spoke privately for five minutes, watched a romantic video and hugged, women had higher levels of the “love hormone” oxytocin along with lower levels of the stress hormone norepinhephrine and blood pressure.

“It may well be … that oxytocin triggers physiologic changes that help to protect women’s hearts,” the editor of Critical Care Nurse explained.8 Indeed, still other research has revealed that, among postmenopausal women, frequent hugs between partners are associated with lower blood pressure and heart rate and higher levels of oxytocin.9

Hugging Might Boost Your Immune System, Help Prevent Colds

Hugging may increase production of feel-good endorphins in your body, which in turn strengthen your immune system.10 Further, they may also lower your risk of infection by buffering the effects of stress that, left unchecked, will increase your susceptibility to disease.

Typically, if you’re under stress (including that induced from conflicts in relationships), you’re at an increased risk of contracting illnesses like the common cold. However, when stressed participants were exposed to a cold virus, perceived social support and hugs were found to buffer the effects of stress, protecting against the expected rise in infection risk.

As revealed in one study, hugging provided 32 percent of the beneficial effect. The study’s lead researcher said:11

“This suggests that being hugged by a trusted person may act as an effective means of conveying support and that increasing the frequency of hugs might be an effective means of reducing the deleterious effects of stress …

The apparent protective effect of hugs may be attributable to the physical contact itself or to hugging being a behavioral indicator of support and intimacy … Either way, those who receive more hugs are somewhat more protected from infection.”

The pressure of a hug may also stimulate your thymus gland, which is responsible for the regulation and balance of your white blood cells,12 another way in which hugging may support your immune system.

Touching Helps Keep You Happy

Whether it be hugging, cuddling, massage therapy or even a pat on the back or a touch on the arm, human touch is an integral part of well-being. Massage, for instance, affects your nervous system through nerve endings in your skin, stimulating the release of endorphins and inducing relaxation and a sense of well-being, relieving pain and reducing levels of stress chemicals such as cortisol and noradrenaline.

This, in turn, may slow heart rate, respiration and metabolism and lower raised blood pressure. Even less involved touching, like a pat on the back, may have benefits, helping to instill trust and spread goodwill. Among National Basketball Association (NBA) players, teams that touched more had improved performance, even after accounting for player status and early season performance.

“Tactile communication, or physical touch, promotes cooperation between people, communicates distinct emotions, soothes in times of stress, and is used to make inferences of warmth and trust,” researchers wrote in the journal Emotion. “Consistent with hypotheses, early season touch predicted greater performance for individuals as well as teams later in the season.”13

Touch is even described as a universal language that can communicate distinct emotions with startling accuracy. One study found that touch alone can reveal emotions including anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude and sympathy, with accuracy rates of up to 83 percent.14

Are You Touch Deprived and ‘Skin Hungry’?

It’s well-known that infants raised without enough physical touch experience problems with development and are at increased risk of behavioral, emotional and social problems in adulthood. Yet, physical touch may be a need that continues throughout all life stages.

People with a deprivation of affection suffer from negative effects in areas of health, happiness, social support and relationship satisfaction. It’s also associated with loneliness, depression, stress and mood and anxiety disorders.15 Certain populations are more at risk than others, with men and the elderly at the high end of the spectrum.

Research by Kory Floyd, Ph.D. of the University of Arizona, even suggests we’re experiencing a “crisis of skin hunger.” Not only do more Americans live alone than ever before but 1 in 4 lack a close confidante with whom to talk about important issues. Further, he writes, 3 out of 4 adults agrees with the statement, “Americans suffer from skin hunger.” Floyd continues:16

“We normally associate hunger with food, of course — but we don’t feel hunger simply because we want food. We feel hunger because we need food, just as we feel thirsty because we need water, and tired because we need sleep.

Our bodies know what they require to function properly, and research suggests that affection belongs on that list, right behind food, water and rest. Just as lack of food, water and rest have their detrimental effects, so too does the lack of affection.”

In addition to the health risks noted above, people with skin hunger are also more likely to have trouble expressing and interpreting emotion, a condition known as alexithymia. They’re also less likely to form secure attachments with others.

How to Get More Hugs

Many people can secure more hugs in their life simply by making a concerted effort to be more affectionate with family members and friends. Remember, giving hugs is as beneficial as receiving them, so make a point to initiate hugs often with your partner and other loved ones. If you live alone and don’t have someone to hug on a daily basis, there are other options to get more touch in your life.

Professional cuddle centers have popped up in some cities, which let you pay for a nonsexual hug or cuddle. Getting a massage or making an appointment with a chiropractor or reiki master are other viable options.

You can also make a habit of greeting your friends with a hug. Hugs of the nonhuman variety, given to your dog or cat, for example, can also be gratifying, and if that’s not an option, even hugging a teddy bear may help.

Ultimately, the more physical affection you receive, the happier and healthier you’re likely to be. Your body needs hugs and other forms of touch just like it needs food and water, so make an effort to get more hugs daily.

If you’re wondering how many hugs is ideal, the late psychotherapist Virginia Satir famously said, “We need [four] hugs a day for survival. We need [eight] hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”17