You might eat only the highest-quality organics. Exercise in the precise optimal dose. Get ample sleep.
In the middle of 2020, I discovered that I had a serious deficiency. As I looked around, I noticed the same widespread issue.
That deficiency is what I call “Vitamin T”.
You’ll rarely hear about the many health benefits of hugging and physical touch.
It need not be romantic. In the regions of the world known for supporting the oldest human healthspans (called Blue Zones), physical touch isn’t a nice to have.
It’s their way of life.
Science supports the tremendous healing power of touch therapy and hugging:
- Slowing heart rate
- Dampening stress levels
- Lowering perceived fear, danger, and threat
- Relieving pain
- Strengthening relationships and connection
- Speeds up recovery from injury or surgery
- Reducing inflammation
- Increased physical performance
- Boosting mood
- Resilient immune systems
In this post, I’ll explain the science behind the healing power of touch. You’ll learn how to regain fluency in the oldest form of human communication. and how we can tap into the vastly beneficial and immense powers of physical touch no matter the circumstances.
Why Touch Matters More than Ever
Our culture does not openly express affection.
Today, even less so.
Between the deluge of social media and personal protective equipment, our isolation is unprecedented. Invading someone’s six-foot personal bubble can incite fear, panic, and anger.
Day by day, our social “muscles” atrophy.
Zoom will not replace in-person interactions. Physical presence (and touch) conveys the highest level of communication, support, and connection.
Since early 2020, humans have gone through record physical isolation.
20th-century demonstrations proved that animals deprived of touch experience stunted growth and sub-optimal development. Yet we humans face the same situation around the globe today.
Dr. Zach Bush, a triple-board certified doctor, constantly works with end-of-life patients. He’s a thought leader specializing in the link between humans, health, and our environment. In several of Dr. Bush’s podcast appearances, he mentions the things that most improve his patients’ life outlook.
He calls physicality one potential antidote to cancer.
What is cancer? To oversimplify, it’s a cell disconnected from the network, acting solely in its own interest to survive. If we can communicate to, and reconnect that cell, it no longer threatens the existence of the harmonious whole.
Similarly, touch reintegrates and connects us. Resulting in better health outcomes.
Less medication needed
Research has shown that touch, even by a stranger, blunts pain. Fascinatingly, that study found that the more significant the bond, the stronger the quelling of pain.
In hospital settings, imagine the impact. Rather than pumping patients full of pain killers and medication to offset the other medications (all with side effects) — touch therapy could produce stronger effects with less medication.
Indeed, Dr. Verghese calls touch one of the most important healing modalities performed by physicians.
Scientific Benefits of Touch
Studies investigating the medicinal value of therapeutic touch have uncovered shocking findings.
Touch has physical, mental, and emotional benefits both for the recipient but also the giver.
It impacts the sick as well as high-performers. For example, one study of NBA players found a strong correlation between the amount of friendly physical interaction and game outcome.
Benefits likely come from several mechanisms:
- Hormonal changes
- Pressure sensing via nerves in the skin
- Entering into the electromagnetic field of others
Touch alleviates stress
Physical contact helps us cope with and overcome stress. It has roots of providing comfort and safety. Touch activates pressure receptors in the skin.
Hormonally, touch reduces the stress hormone cortisol. Even hugging an inanimate object lowers cortisol.
“…just somebody simply touching our arm and holding it, buffers the physiological consequences of a stress response”Matt Hertenstein
This connection can inoculate us against the unavoidable stress of modern living.
Touch melts away pain
In 2019, over 20 percent of American adults reported suffering from chronic pain. And pain management costs taxpayers more than cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Research suggests we go back to basics.
Touch buffers against all forms of pain.
In response to contact, brain activity changes, and the body releases natural endorphins. This stimulation of the opioid system reduces the perception of pain.
Finally, in accordance with Dr. Zach Bush’s experience, a 2018 study found two forms of touch therapy (healing touch and oncology massage) resulted in immediate pain relief to cancer patients.
Touch facilitates communication
Study professional speakers and you’ll notice that they rely heavily on their bodies to accentuate their messages.
Observe skilled negotiators, and you’ll see them making far more physical contact than average.
Humans communicate and receive vast amounts of data through tactile sensation. It’s central to social life.
This study found that touch amplifies emotional display by the expresser, and accuracy of identification in the recipient. The same paper found that we can verbally communicate a wider array of emotions when accompanied by touch.
As negotiators know, it communicates confidence, honesty, trustworthiness, and leads to more favorable outcomes.
Touch boosts trust & connection
Several mechanisms explain the link between trust, connection, and physicality. Chief and most studied is the hormone oxytocin.
Known as the love and bonding neuropeptide, oxytocin directly influences our sense of trust, devotion, and attachment by acting on the limbic system (the brain’s emotional processing center). Today, biohackers buy oxytocin spray online to deepen their connection with their partner.
Natural ways of stimulating oxytocin production include holding hands, hugging, and massage. The more meaningful the relationship, the stronger the effect.
One powerful study I came across showed that physical touch by waitresses significantly increased tips received by customers.
Touch normalizes biomarkers (inflammation, blood pressure, and heart rate)
Contact helps both parties, causing a cascade of biochemical reactions.
Within seconds, we see a wide variety of biomarker improvements:
- Lower heart rate
- Decreased blood pressure
- Decreased body temperature
- Increased physical strength
- Faster wound healing
The effects are even more pronounced between mother and baby.
Touch strengthens the immune system and protects against infection
Stress hormones shut down the immune system.
It follows that reducing stress leads to stronger immunity,
” Touch starvation increases stress, depression and anxiety, triggering a cascade of negative physiological effects. The body releases the hormone cortisol as a response to stress, activating the body’s ‘flight-or-fight’ response. This can increase heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and muscle tension, and can suppress the digestive system and immune system—increasing the risk of infection.”(emphasis mine)— Asim Shah, M.D
A study of 406 healthy adults investigated exactly that. They found that perceived support protected against stress-induced illness. With hugging standing out as especially potent.
Enhanced immunity in part is likely due to increases in specific neurotransmitters.
Touch improves mood and happiness neurotransmitters
Your body responds to touch by producing several potent brain chemicals.
Three important neurotransmitters related to mood and happiness include:
- Oxytocin — responsible for trust, intimacy, and feelings of connection
- Serotonin — the “feel good” chemical that acts as the body’s natural anti-depressent
- Dopamine — involved in the pursuit of goals and reward circuits of the brain
Six seconds seems like the magic threshold for maximum neurotransmitter release.
Feel the effects yourself with a hearty hug.
How to Get the Benefits of Physical Touch During Lockdown
Touch impacts all humans on the cellular level.
But for the kinesthetic, the last few years have been a nightmare.
I’ve felt the gloom while holed up in my apartment. No events and few parties to physically connect.
While no substitute for real touch, a few things can help. After all, in many ways, the brain does not differentiate between real, physical experiences and those intentionally recreated by the mind.
Video chat with people that matter to you. Merely feeling socially connected confers some benefits.
Solar touch (a term I’m coining) by getting outdoors in the sun. Natural, unfiltered sunlight causes similar improvements in neurotransmitters leading to a mood boost. UV light has pain-killing opiate-like effects.
Self-massage daily to activate your skin’s pressure receptors. This article explains several different techniques. Or you can use my favorite technique and simultaneously reap the benefits of meditation with EcoMeditation.
Visualize reconnecting with loved ones and close friends. Though it sounds corny, intentional visualization activates the same neural pathways as the actual experience. The more vivid the better.
Whatever you do, make a commitment to yourself and those around you to (appropriately) touch more.
Get The Benefits of Hugging & Therapeutical Touch
Many of the best health hacks are completely free.
Touch doesn’t have to be romantic. A simple brush against someone, a light touch on the arm to emphasize a point, or a friendly hug can make someone’s day. People notice these small things and regularly comment on it.
Modern science is beginning to uncover some of the health benefits of touch:
- Natural anti-depressive by boosting serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin
- Reduced stress levels help the body regenerate more rapidly
- Deeper trust, connection, and more favorable impressions
- Alleviates pain of all forms
- Normalizes healthy biomarkers
- Strengthens the immune system
Better yet, conscious physicality positively impacts both you and the recipient.
Each of us moves throughout life wielding nature’s opiate with us at all times. And without nasty side effects.
Should you use it?
That’s up to you, but touch is a vital part of my life. What are your thoughts about it? Let’s have a conversation in the comments below.