Valentine’s Day might be over, but that doesn’t mean we have to say goodbye to some extra TLC. After all, we all know that feeling of comfort that washes over us when we enter the embrace of a loved one. Whether it’s a hug from a friend you haven’t seen in a while or cuddling with that special someone, there’s a reason physical touch is one of the biggest ways we show affection.
But have you ever wondered why, exactly, physical touch brings us so much joy? Well, there’s actually a biochemical reason for our desire to get physical. Any kind of touch, including hugs and cuddling, releases the hormone oxytocin from your brain’s pituitary gland. This hormone is often referred to as the “love” hormone, as it’s the primary hormone that peaks during orgasm and can actually increase bonding in couples. But it does way more than that, too. Research has shown that this powerful hormone plays a big role in your overall health and has been shown to have numerous health benefits. So let’s look at the top ways getting your cuddle on can help improve your health:
1. Cuddling improves your sleep.
It’s estimated that close to 22 million Americans struggle with sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing stops and starts throughout the night. Studies have shown that oxytocin administration can increase the amount of sleep, the quality of sleep, and help to improve cardiorespiratory homeostasis. Even though further research needs to be done to exactly understand the mechanisms behind how oxytocin affects sleep apnea, it’s a good excuse to cuddle up with your loved one during the night!
2. Physical touch can curb cravings and weight gain.
There are a lot of underlying factors that can go into weight gain and the inability to lose weight—hormone imbalances being one example. But when it comes to the psychological side of eating and the desire to binge eat, oxytocin has been shown in studies to reduce the need to eat for pleasure and can actually increase the feeling of being full and satisfied, which can lead to better food choices and reduce the need for reward-based eating.
Low levels of oxytocin have been found in people struggling with chronic pain. One study, in particular, found that children who experienced recurring stomach pain had lower oxytocin levels than children of the same age without stomach pain. Research has shown that oxytocin was able to decrease pain in people dealing with lower back pain, cancer, and even IBS.
4. Cuddling boosts immunity.
Your gut is home to close to 75 percent of your immune system. Your gut and brain communicate through the gut-brain axis, and it has been shown that oxytocin is responsible for the feeling of butterflies you get being around or touching your significant other. Just one more example of why your gut really is your “second brain.” By increasing oxytocin release through cuddling, it actually boosts your T-regulatory cells, which are responsible for keeping your immune system balanced and strong.
Cuddling also releases your “happy hormone” serotonin. About 95 percent of your amount of this neurotransmitter is produced and stored in your gut and also works to keep your immune system healthy. People who actually hugged more often were less likely to get sick, and when they did, their symptoms were less severe.
5. Cuddling lowers inflammation.
Chronic inflammation is one of the top things we look for in functional medicine. Not only can oxytocin boost T-regulatory cells, which can reduce inflammation, but it has the ability to lower inflammation by reducing pro-inflammatory cytokines such as IL-6
6. Physical touch reduces anxiety.
There’s no denying that cuddling is a very peaceful activity. And now science is pointing to oxytocin’s ability to significantly lower anxiety and even help in cases of severe anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder. So next time you’re feeling a little anxious, grab hold of your sweetie’s hand to help calm your nerves.
7. Oxytocin lowers heart disease risk.
Chronic inflammation, stress, anxiety, and high blood pressure are markers for increased heart disease risk that are all lowered when your body releases oxytocin. So hug away—in honor of your health.
8. Cuddling strengthens relationships
Like I said earlier, oxytocin is often called the “love” hormone due to its powerful ability to increase bonding between individuals. This goes far beyond just romantic relationships! Oxytocin is a hormone closely associated with childbirth; in fact, when you’re in labor, your body rapidly releases oxytocin to help your uterus contract and your body ready itself for childbirth. Afterward, it helps to strengthen the bond between mother and child.
Learning about the benefits of physical touch, hugs, cuddling, and oxytocin release in the body is an important reminder that wellness isn’t a solo journey. Optimal health is about taking the time to care for ourselves but also for our community and our planet. It’s about You. We. All.