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It's common sense that a hug at a stressful time, a handshake after an important meeting or just cuddling at the end of the day help us relax, leaving behind negativity and worry. Now researchers are investigating whether this feel-good energy has an impact on our well-being. Are there health benefits to touch?
When we experience friendly, affectionate touch, our bodies release oxytocin, which is sometimes called the love hormone. Oxytocin's effects include lowering blood pressure, decreasing the stress-related hormone cortisol and increasing pain tolerance. It is released through friendly touch, including contact between breastfeeding moms and their babies, cuddling couples and even pets and their owners.
A 2006 study even showed that women experienced less pain from an expected, mild shock when they were allowed to hold a stranger's hand—and they experienced the least pain from the shock when holding a partner's hand.
The Benefits of Bodywork
Studies suggest a number of ways touch can help us stay healthy. Massage, for example, has been shown to lower blood pressure, slow heart rate and even help premature babies gain weight. Although the mechanism by which massage helps isn't perfectly understood, researchers are beginning to pinpoint conditions it helps, including knee pain caused by osteoarthritis, low-back pain and neck pain.
By increasing the amount of touch, massage harnesses the health-promoting effects of oxytocin, along with reducing anxiety and promoting a general sense of well-being. And massage after a tough workout can help prevent stiffness and soreness the next day.
Adding Touch to Your Day
Without thinking about it, some people can go hours, days or even weeks without any physical contact in their lives. Adding touch to your day is a simple way to harness its health-maximizing effects of less stress, pain management and a healthier body and mind.
Remember that touch doesn't only have to mean being touched; giving touch in healthy ways, from a hug to a handshake to a pat on the back, benefits you—and the person on the receiving end. And you don't have to be in a relationship to do it. Even a quick touch like a high-five (for those friends who hate to hug) can be beneficial.