Here’s some news worth cuddling up to: Science shows that kissing, hugging, snuggling, and holding hands produce more than just magical moments. They can actually boost overall health, helping you lose weight, lower blood pressure, fight off sickness, and more. And if you don’t have a human cuddle buddy, here’s more reason to purr: Snuggling with pets has been shown to produce similar results as snuggling with the people you love most.
So what’s the science behind the power of Xs and Os? It has almost everything to do with a hormone called oxytocin.
“Sometimes called the “cuddle hormone” or “feel-good hormone,” oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus and released by the pituitary gland when we’re physically affectionate, producing what some describe as warm fuzzies – feelings of connection, bonding, and trust,” said Paula S. Barry, MD, physician at Penn Family and Internal Medicine Longwood. Another defining characteristic of oxytocin is its compounding nature: The more oxytocin you release by being affectionate, the more you want to hug, touch, and hold hands. It’s a snowball effect that can spell great things not only for meaningful relationships, but for your long-term personal well-being and overall health.
“Oxytocin levels are often higher in women than in men. In addition, oxytocin also plays a role in the maternal-infant bond. It is associated with child-birth and lactation. In certain situations, it is prescribed by physicians during childbirth and delivery,” said Dr. Barry. Dr. Barry further explained that, “It is important to note that the physical touch or hug effects are positive only in those that there is a caring relationship not from unwanted touching. In fact, undesired physical contact can have the opposite effect by increasing cortisol levels and stress.”
Hug your way to a healthier heart
We all know that physical touch has psychological benefits, but can it actually improve the way your body works? Science leans toward yes. In a study of 59 women, those who hugged their partners more often had a lower resting blood pressure than the women who rarely engaged in physical touch. “It is uncertain if this is related to a change in vagal tone, the release of oxytocin and other hormones and peptides, or from the feeling of comfort, support, and caring brought on by a hug,” said Dr. Barry. Healthy blood pressure is key to fending off heart disease, pointing to hugs as a small but potentially significant way to achieve and maintain heart health.
Xs and Os for better Zzzzzzzs
Higher levels of oxytocin have been linked to falling asleep quickly and staying asleep. This might be a side effect of the hormone’s ability to regulate sleep patterns, which some studies attribute to a slew of other benefits including fewer nightmares.
Hold hands, weigh less
Oxytocin is one of several appetite-related hormones released when we are full, telling our brain and body to stop eating. So, when oxytocin is cued by hugging, kissing, and holding hands, it has the same effects as oxytocin cued by a well-rounded meal – that is, you feel like you’ve eaten, and are therefore less likely to reach for a snack or another bite. The exact role of oxytocin and its effect on eating behaviors is an area of ongoing research.
Cuddling= less stress
As an added bonus, affection not only increases oxytocin production; it also reduces secretion of cortisol, the stress hormone. High cortisol levels are linked to depression and a variety of other mental and physical ailments. When you make physical contact with someone you care about, the feel good oxytocin floodgates open at the same time the urge to feel frazzled (cortisol) is subdued, leading to an all-around calmer state.
Snuggle away sickness
Cortisol, the stress hormone, prioritizes short-term survival over long-term health. This leads to a weakened immune system and a greater chance of getting sick – unless oxytocin sweeps in and saves the day. Oxytocin has the ability to undo cortisol’s effects and restore the body’s balance, improving immune function and your odds of fighting off viruses and infections. If you’re already eating an apple a day to keep sickness away, consider adding a few smooches to your daily regimen, too!
Affection today, aaaah tomorrow
For all of its perks, physical affection’s most enduring benefit is probably the one it’s best known for: It makes you feel all-around great – and not just temporarily. “It is important to remember that Oxytocin is part of a complex system of neurohormones, but when it’s released by physical touch it can have many benefits including laying the foundation for cognitive, social and emotional well-being, and strengthening emotional bonds and trust,” Dr. Barry explained.