Why do hugs feel so good?

We’ve been missing them but maybe we didn’t realise just how important hugs were for our health. Francis McGlone and Susannah Walker explain the innumerable benefits of hugging

Tuesday 25 May 2021 00:00
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<p>Open arms: the emotional and health benefits of a  good hug extend throughout our lifetimes</p>

Open arms: the emotional and health benefits of a good hug extend throughout our lifetimes

For many of us, if there’s one thing we’ve missed most during the pandemic it’s being able to hug loved ones. Indeed, it wasn’t until we lost our ability to hug friends and family that many of us realised just how important touch is for many aspects of our health – including our mental health.

But now that vaccine programmes are being rolled out and restrictions are beginning to ease in much of the UK, many of us will be keen to bring those hugs back into our lives again. And the good news is that not only do hugs feel good, they also come with many health benefits.

The reason hugs feel so good has to do with our sense of touch. It’s an extremely important sense which allows us not only to physically explore the world around us, but also to communicate with others by creating and maintaining social bonds.

Touch consists of two distinct systems. The first is “fast-touch”, a system of nerves which allows us to rapidly detect contact (for example, if a fly lands on your nose, or you touch something hot). The second system is “slow-touch”. This is a population of recently discovered nerves called c-tactile afferents, which process the emotional meaning of touch.

These c-tactile afferents have essentially evolved to be “cuddle nerves” and are typically activated by a very specific kind of stimulation: a gentle, skin-temperature touch, the kind typical of a hug or caress. We see c-tactile afferents as the neural input stage – the first port of call, if you like – in signalling the rewarding, pleasurable sensations of social tactile interactions, more popularly known as hugging and touching.

Infants that receive high levels of nurturing contact grow up to be less reactive to stressors and show lower levels of anxiety

Touch is the first sense to start working in the womb, at around 14 weeks. From the moment we are born, the gentle caress of a parent has multiple health benefits, such as lowering heart rate and promoting the growth of brain cell connections.

When someone hugs us, the stimulation of c-tactile afferents in our skin sends signals, via the spinal cord, to the brain’s emotion processing networks. This induces a cascade of neurochemical signals, which have proven health benefits. Some of the neurochemicals include the hormone oxytocin, which plays an important role in social bonding, slows down heart rate and reduces stress and anxiety levels. The release of endorphins in the brain’s reward pathways supports the immediate feelings of pleasure and well-being derived from a hug or caress.

Hugging has such a relaxing and calming effect that it also benefits our health in other ways.

It improves our sleep: From the benefits of co-sleeping with infants to cuddling your partner, gentle 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’re stressed. So it’s no wonder high levels of stress can delay sleep and cause fragmented sleep patterns or insomnia.

It reduces reactivity to stress: Beyond the immediate soothing and pleasurable feelings provided by a hug, social touch also has longer-term benefits for our health, making us less reactive to stress and building resilience.

Nurturing touch, during early developmental periods, produces higher levels of oxytocin receptors and lower levels of cortisol in brain regions that are vital for regulating emotions. Infants that receive high levels of nurturing contact grow up to be less reactive to stressors and show lower levels of anxiety.

Increases well-being and pleasure: Across our lifespan, social touch bonds us together and helps maintain our relationships. As noted, this is because it releases endorphins, which makes us see hugs and touch as rewarding. Touch provides the “glue” that holds us together, underpinning our physical and emotional well-being.

Nurturing contact: Hugs and gentle caresses in infancy are the ‘glue’ that binds our emotional wellness

And when touch is desired, the benefits are shared by both people in the exchange – it’s a two-way street. In fact, even stroking your pet can have benefits on health and well-being, with oxytocin levels increasing in both the pet and the owner.

It could help us fight off infections: By regulating our hormones – including oxytocin and cortisol – touching and hugging can also affect our body’s immune response. Whereas high levels of stress and anxiety can suppress our ability to fight infections, close, supportive relationships benefit health and well-being.

Research even suggests that cuddling in bed could protect us against the common cold. By monitoring hugging frequency among just over 400 adults who were then exposed to a common cold virus, researchers found the “huggers” won hands-down in being less likely to get a cold. And even if they did, they had less severe symptoms.

Hug it out

While it’s important we continue to keep ourselves safe, it’s equally important that we don’t give up hugs forever. Social isolation and loneliness are known to increase our chances of premature death – and perhaps future research should investigate whether it’s a lack of hugs or social touch that may be driving this. Touch is an instinct that is all-around beneficial for our mental and physical health – so we should celebrate its return.

Of course, not everyone craves a hug. So for those that don’t, there’s no reason to worry about missing out on the benefits of hugs, because you can do it yourself. Giving yourself a hug has been shown to regulate emotional processes and reduce stress.

Francis McGlone is a professor in neuroscience at Liverpool John Moores University. Susannah Walker is a senior lecturer in natural sciences and psychology at Liverpool John Moores University. This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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