Relationships and Health
The biggest influence on overall mortality isn’t what you think.
Although exercise and diet are important, neither one is on top.
The most influential predictors of disease outcomes have been found to be social connections and social determinants of health. (R, R, R)
Knowing this, it is surprising that these topics aren’t getting more attention. It is especially disheartening that the association between social support and health are often not discussed within medical care, as this is something all of us have potential to nurture and access.
Recently, I explored this concept related to cardiovascular care. Specifically, I highlighted how positive social support has been linked to mediating the detrimental effects of depression on the heart and has also been shown to modulate heart disease risk.
If you’re reading this in 2022, you may have experienced the catch 22 of the past few years regarding understanding the benefits of social connection, human touch, and fear of contagion. In fact, being separated from loved ones may have made you appreciate even more, on a visceral level, the ways that relationships and physical closeness affect your mood and physical symptoms.
This societal separation caused alarm bells to go off inside my naturopathic doctor’s mind. At a time when the very thing we needed the most seemed literally out of reach, I became adamant on stressing the importance of paying attention to our mental health and integrative wellness.
For example, I previously discussed the implications of the aftereffects of being so distant and provided some resources on how to cope when we were in the thick of things:
It is evident that effective, integrative measures that supplement conventional care are needed to help society, and especially our little ones, cope with living in an uncertain, isolated, and tumultuous world. (R, R, R, R, R) As a naturopathic doctor (ND), it is my belief that naturopathic medicine (NM) can fill this unmet need for holistic resources that reduce the negative impacts of these recent happenings.*
Throughout all of 2020, I have advocated for being mindful of mental health. Now, it is especially important to prevent the physical and emotional health ramifications from these unrelenting stressors. (Click here to continue reading.)
Unfortunately, although we are now appearing to come out of one trauma, the unrelenting negative news of the world continues to spin around us. This has made many people retreat and escape to perceived safety in order to cope. This is a natural response, but perhaps the least helpful. It can lead to isolation which may perpetuate emotional distress and negative physical outcomes.
Although it’s hard to measure social isolation and loneliness precisely, there is strong evidence that many adults aged 50 and older are socially isolated or lonely in ways that put their health at risk. Recent studies found that:
- Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.1
- Social isolation was associated with about a 50% increased risk of dementia.1
- Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) were associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.1
- Loneliness was associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
- Loneliness among heart failure patients was associated with a nearly 4 times increased risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.1
For these reasons, I urge you to make it a point to go out safely and reconnect with those you care about.
It is time to allow yourself to receive more support and once again reap the benefits of human touch and connection.
One way to do this is through hugging, which will be the focus of the rest of this post.
The Eight Benefits of Hugging
Hugging is a free intervention with so many payoffs that are often taken for granted and not explored.
Let’s change that!
Hugs offer many benefits. Below are eight of them for us to explore.
Just look at what hugs can do!
1. Enhance Comfort and Connection
Giving another person supportive touch during times of distress may reduce the stress of the person being comforted as it also lowers stress of the comforter and enhances nurturing. A win-win!
In one study of twenty heterosexual couples, men were given unpleasant electric shocks. During the shocks, each woman held the arm of her partner.
Researchers found that the parts of each woman’s brain associated with stress showed reduced activity while those parts associated with the rewards of maternal behavior showed more activity. When we hug someone to comfort them, these parts of our brain may show a similar response.
In another study it was shown that hugging for just 20 seconds can release oxytocin and could be used as a tool to boost connection and bonding with one’s partner.
2. May Reduce Sickness
Can a hug a day keep the doctor away? Maybe.
In one study with over 400 individuals, perceived social support and hugging predicted less severe illness symptoms. Specifically, participants who reported more hugs and supportive relationships were found to have a decreased risk of infection after being exposed to a virus and monitored for a set period of time in quarantine. (R, R)
3. May Help Your Heart
Just as social connection is linked to cardiovascular outcomes, hugging itself has been associated with lowering blood pressure.
4. Improves Mood and Brain Health
Research reports that oxytocin, a hormone released with soothing touch, can impact emotional, mental, and social behavior.
- improvements in self-image
- higher life satisfaction
- lower levels of depression
In my previous post, I explored in more detail how touch impacts the brain and can impact cognition and mood:
Studies have stated that our brains are hard-wired to interpret and decode touch. Through a range of mechanoreceptors and neural pathways, tactile stimulation has proven to be a cognitive processing phenomenon. Where exactly in the brain this occurs is still being explored, but it has been linked to emotional processing areas and may also be based on stage of development and even gender. In fact, some research has demonstrated that individual differences in perception and decoding touch may be linked to neurological and psychological disorders. (R, R, R, R, R)
5. Can Relieve Stress and Anxiety
By releasing oxytocin, hugging can help relieve stress and enhance relaxation.
Furthermore, touch itself may calm the mind and reduce stress hormones. It has been found to induce changes in cortisol in some small studies, though results are mixed. (R, R,R, R, R)
6. May Provide Pain Relief
Hugging yourself may seem cheesy, but there’s science to it regarding relief from discomfort.
In a small study, it was found that “hugging yourself” could potentially offset the sensation of pain. For the study, pinprick-like sensations with a laser were generated to elicit pain in 20 participants. The results showed that “crossing the hands over the body midline impairs this ability to localize tactile stimuli.” In other words, the physical act of wrapping your arms around yourself, a self-hug, may be used to confuse the brain and impede the processing of painful experiences.
In another study with fibromyalgia patients, therapeutic touch was shown to decrease pain and increase quality of life. This again demonstrates that human touch may have pain reducing properties and why we instinctively rub an achy muscle.
7. Help with Communication
Touch can communicate our emotions. One study demonstrated that “a stranger was capable of expressing a wide range of emotions to another person by touching different parts of their body.”
8. May Improve Self-Compassion
“According to leading self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff, PhD, hugging, stroking, and physically comforting your body increases feelings of love and tenderness toward the self.” (source)
This kind of self-compassion has been linked to enhanced resilience in youth and reduced effects of trauma in veterans.
What Is Your Optimal Daily Dose of Hugs (DDOH)
So now that we know the positive effects of hugs, many may wonder what our DDOH needs to be.
According to some scientists, we are very hug deprived and need about 12 hugs a day for growth!
According to the best science, we should have as many as possible if we want to reap the greatest positive effects.
Unfortunately, most Western people today — especially people in the United States — are touch-deprived. Many people live solitary or busy lives with reduced social interaction and touching.
Our modern social conventions often push people not to touch others who aren’t directly related to them. However, it seems people could benefit a lot from touching others a bit more.
So, if you want to feel better about yourself, reduce your stress, improve communication, and be happier and healthier, it seems that giving and asking for more hugs is a good place to start.
If you feel nervous about seeking out more hugs, start by asking for them from friends and family members closest to you first.
Science proves that regular hugs with those closest to you, even if brief, can have especially positive effects on your brain and body.
What If You Live Alone and Can’t Get Hugs from People?
As stated above, self-hugs and touching may provide benefit for pain relief and boosting self-compassion. The Havening Technique, which I reviewed previously, also explores more on how to use self-touch to relieve anxiety.
Other options to reap the benefit of connection and touch include massage and loving up your pets.
Still, the dual benefit of hugging someone else cannot be replaced altogether.
Eventually, you may wish to courageously reach out to those you are most close and comfortable with to start getting your recommended DDOH!
(You can use essential oils to help with bridging that connection, by the way. 😉 )
Soon, you may be benefiting from more hugs from friends and family!
Sending you a big virtual hug!
Naturopathic Medicine and Essential Oils Resources for Holistic Mind-Body and Wellness Support
- If you’d like to learn more about essential oils’ properties and their use for whole-body support, view my database here.
- You can discover the five reasons essential oils and naturopathic medicine make a great team here.
- Feel free to explore my dedicated essential oils website which features the brand of essential oils I use with clients and information on specific products for healthy living.
- Finally, grab my free essential oils guide! It contains all the information you need to get started with essential oils! Even if you are a seasoned oiler, signing up to get the guide will provide access to future education on essential oils and wellness topics. Click here.
You can learn more about me and how I approach individual care as a naturopathic doctor by clicking here or book an essential oils consult here.
Upcoming Mind-Body-Heart-Spirit Passion Project
Be on the lookout in the upcoming months for an invitation to join an opportunity that truly incorporates all integrative aspects of health, including human connection and relationships.
This is part of my passion project to bring the heart and mind-body-spirit back into the forefront of medicine.
I’d love for you to join me and allow me to guide you in the process of becoming a more vibrant, healthier, happier person!
Disclaimer: This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)
This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.
Thanks Pixabay and Canva.