by Dr. Will Cole
Even though Valentine’s Day is over, we don’t have to say goodbye to some extra TLC. After all, we are all familiar with the feeling of comfort that washes over us when we enter the embrace of a loved one. Whether it is a hug from a friend or a cuddle session with your significant other, there’s a reason why physical touch is one of the biggest ways we show affection to another person.
But why does physical touch elicit so much joy? There’s actually a biochemical reason behind our physical desires. All types of touch, including cuddling and hugs, release the hormone oxytocin from your brain’s pituitary gland. This hormone is also known as the “love” hormone since it the hormone that spikes during orgasm. It is so powerful that it has been shown to increase bonding between couples. But oxytocin does way more than just that. Studies have shown this hormone to have many other powerful health benefits. So let’s examine how getting your cuddle on can improve your health:
1. Cuddling improves sleep.
Close to 22 million Americans struggle with sleep apnea. With this condition, breathing starts and stops throughout the night making it difficult to get a restful night’s sleep. Studies have shown that administering oxytocin can improve the quality and amount of sleep, as well as improve cardiorespiratory homeostasis. More research needs to be done to fully understand the exact role oxytocin plays helping sleep apnea. But it’s definitely a good excuse to cuddle up before catching some Zzs!
2. Physical touch can curb cravings and halt weight gain.
Hormone imbalances and many underlying factors play a role in weight gain and the inability to lose weight. However, when it comes to the psychological side of eating and binge eating, oxytocin is powerful in reducing the desire to eat for pleasure. In fact, it can increase the feeling of being satiated which will limit the need for reward-based eating.
3. Oxytocin eases chronic pain.
Low oxytocin levels have been found in people dealing with chronic pain. One study looked at children with recurring stomach pain and compared them to children without stomach pain and found that those with pain had lower oxytocin levels. Studies have shown that oxytocin was able to lower pain in people with cancer, back pain, and IBS.
4. Cuddling strengthens immunity.
Around 75 percent of your immune system is located in your gut. Your gut and brain are inextricably linked through the gut-brain axis. Ever wondered what was behind that feeling of butterflies in your stomach? Look no further than oxytocin – just one more example of how your gut really is your “second brain.” Your T-regulatory cells, which are responsible for keeping your immune system balanced, are boosted when there is an increase in oxytocin.
Cuddling also increases your “happy” neurotransmitter, serotonin. Close to 95 percent of your serotonin is made and stored in your gut and also helps keep your immune system balanced. People who hug more often are less likely to get sick and have less severe symptoms when they do.
5. Cuddling lowers inflammation.
In functional medicine, chronic inflammation is one of the main things we look for when assessing a person’s health. Besides just boosting inflammation-fighting T-regulatory cells, oxytocin also works to lower inflammation by reducing pro-inflammatory cytokines like IL-6.
6. Physical touch reduces anxiety.
No one can argue that cuddling is a peaceful activity. Now, science is showing oxytocin’s ability to lower anxiety, even in severe anxiety disorders such as social anxiety disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Hold your sweetie’s hand to calm your nerves next time you are feeling anxious.
7. Oxytocin reduces heart disease risk.
Stress, anxiety, chronic inflammation, and high blood pressure – all risk factors for heart disease – are lowered when your body releases oxytocin. So, in honor of your health, cuddle away!
8. Cuddling strengthens relationships.
As I said earlier, oxytocin is also known as the “love” hormone for its ability to increase bonding in romantic partners and all other relationships as well! Oxytocin is a hormone closely associated with childbirth. During labor, your body releases oxytocin to help your uterus contract and help ready itself for childbirth. Afterwards, it helps strengthen the mother and child bond.
By understanding the benefits of physical touch and how oxytocin is released in the body, it serves as a reminder that health is not a journey one takes alone. Wellness is about taking time to care for ourselves, our community, and our planet.
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