Touch releases oxytocin, which makes us feel better. But can hugging make us better human beings?
Is there anyone who doesn’t like cuddling? On the physical affection and sexuality spectrum, it may not be a rock star, but it’s definitely a winner in terms of improving our health and wellbeing. Besides the obvious physical enjoyment of cuddling, there is a brain chemistry reaction that has far reaching effects. All those warm fuzzy feelings are nothing compared to the benefits we get from the release of oxytocin.
Oxytocin is a neuropeptide (that’s geek speak for a brain chemical that performs many different functions) that’s secreted by the pituitary gland. It’s often associated with new mothers, as it helps with both labor and secretion of milk for breastfeeding, but it has a number of other functions and benefits for both men and women.
What does this cuddle wonder-drug do for us?
Lowers our blood pressure. The next time you hold someone close, take a deep breath and let it go. Unless it’s someone you’d rather not be hugging, chances are you’ll notice your heart rate and your breathing slow down a bit. As the oxytocin levels rise, they affect the hormones that keep us at the ready for action and allow our blood pressure to drop.
Helps relieve pain and raises our pain threshold. Ever have that feeling that nothing can hurt you because you’re so in love? Well, it was probably the oxytocin talking. This effect of oxytocin is particularly helpful for women in labor, but has implications for the rest of us in the day to day. What’s the first thing we do after jamming a finger? We rub it with our other hand. Even this self-stimulation triggers a release of oxytocin and helps us deal with the pain.
Reduces social anxiety. When our brains release oxytocin, we are more likely to have an optimistic outlook on connecting with others, better self-esteem and an easier time trusting those around us. Newer studies are exploring the usefulness of oxytocin (and even supplemental oxytocin) for both post-traumatic stress disorder and disorders on the autism spectrum.
Lowers levels of cortisol (stress hormone). Too much cortisol is bad news—for our moods, our weight and our hearts. While stress hormones like cortisol are a good thing when we need to react in a hurry in a fight-or-flight situation, poor stress management can keep cortisol levels high even when we don’t need it.
Protects against inflammation and oxidative stress. We hear all the time that inflammation is unhealthy and ages us faster. Instead of reaching for the supplement that’s hot this week, consider a little extra cuddle time before falling asleep.
So does this mean anyone who’s single can’t reap the health benefits of oxytocin? Not at all.
Hug your friends. We associate cuddling and physical affection with romantic relationships, but something as simple as a hug will also increase oxytocin levels.
Play with your pet. Studies show that snuggling doesn’t have to be with our fellow humans to increase oxytocin. Any positive touch will elicit a release of oxytocin.
Take a warm bath. The physical sensations of warmth can help increase oxytocin flow.
Get a massage. Massage doesn’t just help stretch out those tight hamstrings; it’s also a great way to boost oxytocin levels and overall health.
Another interesting effect of oxytocin is that it may actually help make us better people. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak has deemed oxytocin “the moral molecule” for the way it impacts our ability to trust and feel empathy:
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