Touch as Medicine

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“The worst thing about living alone is missing the hugs,” 70-year-old Angie told me. Angie’s husband recently died, but she is not isolated. She sees people in the community all the time. But she misses the physical contact.

Quite possibly, if Angie checked her blood pressure, she might find it higher than it was when she was receiving hugs. Kathleen Light, PhD, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that warm contact had positive effects on blood pressure (lower) and heart rate (more regular) “across all race and gender groups. Men and women benefited equally, and even if the partner was no longer present, warm contact had an enduring effect.”

The strongest effects of hugs are on blood pressure, but they have other beneficial effects. An article in Smart Heart Living reports that “human contact through hugs lowers blood pressure and reduces stress, which cuts the risk of heart disease. Hugs have also been shown to improve overall mood, increase nerve activity, and a host of other beneficial effects. Positive physical touch has an immediate anti-stress effect, slowing breathing and heart rate.”

How could hugs help your heart? The primary pathway seems to be through oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone.” Oxytocin is known to be crucial to mother/infant bonding and is thought to relate to social bonding in general. The relationship between touch, oxytocin, and blood pressure has been seen in human and several animal studies. In rats, oxytocin levels rise and blood pressure falls when their bellies are stroked.

Since blood pressure is a major factor in diabetes management, it seems more hugs would be valuable medicine. Doctors should perhaps prescribe them. I would take that medicine!

According to Dr. Light, not all hugs are equal, though. She says hugs in a close, supportive relationship are more valuable. “It takes more than one [hug]; it’s a cumulative effect of the way supportive couples habitually interact together and hug each other.” I’m not so sure about that, though. It seems hugs as part of a committed relationship might help more, but most hugs are good.

There are other ways to get healthy contact. Massage has been found to lower blood pressure by as much as 20 points, or more in some individuals. This effect has been found in African-American women, workers in Nova Scotia, and Spaniards with Type 2 diabetes, among others.

Another Spanish study of people with Type 2 diabetes found that deep-tissue massage improved circulation in the legs for more than six months.

Lighter touch has also been found healing. Patients with fibromyalgia who received therapeutic touch (a very light touch form of healing) showed a significant decrease in pain and reported a significant improvement in quality of life. A recent study of people with Alzheimer disease showed that 5–7 minutes of touching twice a day significantly reduced their pacing.

So most touch seems to be healthy, as long as it is given with love or intent to heal. It makes perfect sense to me. After all, we’re primates. We evolved to live in small groups who touched and groomed each other all the time. So our bodies relax when we touch or are touched by others.

I certainly find that I feel better when I have more physical contact. So does recently widowed Angie. She’s finding hugs twice a week at her church, and she says it helps. It seems like a cheap medicine with no negative side effects. I seem to have less pain and less muscle stiffness. Do you see anything like that? If so, what do you do to get more touch in your life?

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