Could a hug a day keep the doctor away? The answer may be a resounding “yes!” Besides helping you feel close and connected to people you care about, it turns out that hugs can bring a host of health benefits to your body and mind. Believe it or not, a warm embrace might even help you avoid getting sick this winter.
In a 2015 study involving 404 healthy adults, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University examined the effects of perceived social support and the receipt of hugs on the participants’ susceptibility to developing the common cold after being exposed to the virus. People who perceived greater social support were less likely to come down with a cold, and the researchers calculated that the stress-buffering effects of hugging explained 32 percent of that beneficial effect. Even among those who got a cold, those who felt greater social support and received more frequent hugs had less severe symptoms.
“Hugging protects people who are under stress from the increased risk for colds [that’s] usually associated with stress,” notes study lead author Sheldon Cohen, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. Hugging “is a marker of intimacy and helps generate the feeling that others are there to help in the face of adversity.”
Some experts attribute the stress-reducing, health-related benefits of hugging to the release of oxytocin, often called “the bonding hormone” because it promotes attachment in relationships, including between mothers and their newborn babies. Oxytocin is made primarily in the hypothalamus in the brain, and some of it is released into the bloodstream through the pituitary gland. But some of it remains in the brain, where it influences mood, behavior and physiology.
How hugging fits in: “When you’re hugging or cuddling with someone, [he or she is] stimulating pressure receptors under your skin in a way that leads to a cascade of events including an increase in vagal activity, which puts you in a relaxed state,” explains psychologist Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine. One theory is that stimulation of the vagus nerve triggers an increase in oxytocin levels.
The hugging and oxytocin release that comes with it can then have trickle-down effects throughout the body, causing a decrease in heart rate and a drop in the stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine. In a 2011 study of postpartum mothers, researchers at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill found that higher oxytocin levels were associated with lower cardiovascular and sympathetic nervous system reactivity to stress. A 2005 study from the University of North Carolina found that premenopausal women who got more frequent hugs from their partners had higher oxytocin levels and lower blood pressure than their peers who didn’t get as many hugs.
Moreover, in some studies involving animals, “oxytocin has been found to diminish inflammation following acute stroke and cardiac arrest,” notes Greg Norman, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience.
There’s also some evidence that oxytocin can improve immune function and pain tolerance. A 2010 study from Ohio State University found that couples with more positive communication behaviors have higher levels of oxytocin and they heal faster from wounds. More recently, a 2015 study from King’s College in London found that oxytocin has analgesic effects, leading to a reduction in perceived pain intensity and lower pain ratings when participants were subjected to brief radiant heat pulses that were generated by an infrared laser.
On the mood front, oxytocin is known to increase levels of feel-good hormones such as serotonin and dopamine, which may be why it has calming effects. “It reduces depression and anxiety, and it may have an effect on attentional disorders,” Field says. In fact, a 2010 study from Ohio State University found that when socially-housed animals were treated with a pharmacological agent that inhibited oxytocin signaling, they exhibited an increase in depressive-like behavior.
The take-home message: Just because we’re in the midst of cold and flu season, there’s no reason to keep your distance from people you care about. “Like diet and exercise, you need a steady daily dose of hugging,” Field says. But the quality of the hugging counts, too. “If you get a flimsy hug, that’s not going to do it,” Field says. “You need a firm hug” to stimulate oxytocin release.
Getting a firm, feel-good hug before going into a stressful situation (such as giving a presentation at work or going for a worrisome medical examination) could even help you stay calm, cool and collected during the event because your oxytocin levels are likely to stay elevated. A 2012 study from The Netherlands found that when oxytocin is administered nasally, saliva levels of the hormone stay high for more than two hours.
Of course, you won’t actually know if your oxytocin level shoots up with hugging, but don’t sweat it. The hug itself is likely to make you feel supported and cared about. “I suggest not worrying too much about the oxytocin portion, since what really matters is how these interactions impact emotional well-being,” Norman says. In this case, feeling is as good as believing in the power of oxytocin.
By Stacey Colino