Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Hugs & Kisses for Health

Emily Tamberino

Valentine’s Day is a great time to eat chocolate and write sappy love notes, but it’s important to get plenty of hugs, kisses and snuggles all year-round. Physical affection is scientifically proven to boost overall health, help you lose weight, lower blood pressure, fight off sickness and more.

What makes a big old bear hug or snuggling with a pet such a powerful habit for wellbeing? It comes down to oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle hormone,” “the love hormone” or the “love drug.” It’s why skin-to-skin contact between a newborn and their mother is so important. Oxytocin gives us the “warm fuzzies” we feel from cozying up next to another warm body. Produced by the hypothalamus and released by the pituitary gland, oxytocin provides feelings of connection, bonding and trust. 

But oxytocin does so much more than create good vibes. Research shows that oxytocin decreases stress and anxiety levels. Physical affection not only increases oxytocin production, but it also reduces the production of cortisol, the stress hormone. So, when you hug someone you care about, the “feel good” oxytocin hormone is released while cortisol is subdued, leaving both parties feeling calmer and soothed. And, since cortisol weakens the immune system, doing things to increase oxytocin can help the body undo cortisol’s effects and improve immune function, increasing the odds of fighting off viruses and infections.

Physical touch has also been proven to reduce diseases associated with the heart and blood. One study of women showed that those who hugged their partners more had a lower resting blood pressure than those who rarely engaged in physical touch. Higher levels of oxytocin have been shown to improve sleep, helping you fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep. Some studies even credit oxytocin to fewer nightmares.

Tend to be an overeater? Next time you eat, try taking a break for a hug or some kisses. Oxytocin is an appetite-related hormone that tells our brain and body it’s time to stop eating when we are full. So, when a snuggle cues the release of oxytocin, we get the same message we would from eating a full meal and we are less likely to go back for more food. 

Of course, we all know the basic mechanics of an embrace, but studies show there are a few key components to the kind of affection that yields health benefits–pressure, duration and frequency. Deep pressure sends a signal of safety to the autonomic nervous system, calming the sympathetic nerve. It also stimulates the vagus nerve to create a sense of calm and connection. Too much pressure can be off-putting, but light pressure isn’t as effective, so consider applying a medium-amount of pressure to maximize the benefits. 

While we might give a quick hug to someone we haven’t seen in a while, the real benefits of a genuine embrace from someone you care about are felt when you hug for 20 seconds or more. That duration is not backed by science, but it seems to be the amount of time it takes to feel the relaxation of an oxytocin release. Try it out to determine the amount of time that works for you. As for frequency, Virginia Satir, a world-renowned family therapist, is famous for saying “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.” 

Physical affection can cause a powerful behavioral loop–the more oxytocin that’s released by being affectionate, the more you want to touch, hug or snuggle with someone you love. The loop can provide meaningful benefits to a relationship and also yield short- and long-term health benefits. Conversely, unwanted physical contact can have an adverse effect by increasing cortisol levels and stress. 

For reasons that are hard to explain, hugging, kissing, holding hands and snuggling a loved one, including pets, just feels good. Knowing the underlying health benefits might make giving and getting affection that much more meaningful and satisfying.