Hugging and the Brain

Transcript of Neuro Nugget Video:

Everybody loves a good hug. The good news is that not only do hugs feel good—they also have many health benefits.

The reason hugs feel so good has to do with our sense of touch. It’s an extremely important sense that allows us not only to physically explore the world around us, but also to communicate with others by creating and maintaining social bonds.

Touch consists of two distinct systems. The first is “fast-touch,” a system of nerves that allows us to rapidly detect contact (for example, if a fly landed on your nose, or you touched something hot).

The second system is “slow-touch.” This is a population of recently discovered nerves, called c-tactile afferents, that process the emotional meaning of touch.

These c-tactile afferents have essentially evolved to be “cuddle nerves” and are typically activated by a very specific kind of stimulation: a gentle, skin-temperature touch, the kind typical of a hug.

When someone hugs us, the stimulation of c-tactile afferents in our skin sends signals, via the spinal cord, to the brain’s emotion processing networks.

This induces a cascade of neurochemical signals, which have proven health benefits. Some of the neurochemicals include the hormone oxytocin, which plays an important role in social bonding, slows down heart rate, and reduces stress and anxiety levels.

The release of endorphins in the brain’s reward pathways supports the immediate feelings of pleasure and well-being derived from a hug or caress.

Hugging has such a relaxing and calming effect that it also benefits our health in other ways.

1. It improves our sleep. Gentle touch is known to regulate our sleep, as it lowers levels of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is a key regulator of our sleep-wake cycle but also increases when we’re stressed. So it’s no wonder high levels of stress can delay sleep and cause fragmented sleep patterns or insomnia.

It can also reduce reactivity to stress.

Nurturing touch, during early developmental periods, produces higher levels of oxytocin receptors and lower levels of cortisol in brain regions that are vital for regulating emotions.

Infants that receive high levels of nurturing contact grow up to be less reactive to stressors and show lower levels of anxiety.

2. It increases well-being and pleasure. Across our lifespan, social touch bonds us together and helps maintain our relationships. Touch provides the “glue” that holds us together, underpinning our physical and emotional well-being.

And when touch is desired, the benefits are shared by both people in the exchange. In fact, even stroking your pet can have benefits for health and well-being—with oxytocin levels increasing in both the pet and the owner.

3. It could help us fight off infections. Through regulation of our hormones—including oxytocin and cortisol—touching and hugging can also affect our body’s immune response.

Whereas high levels of stress and anxiety can suppress our ability to fight infections, close, supportive relationships benefit health and well-being.

Touch is an instinct that is all-around beneficial for our mental and physical health.

Of course, not everyone craves a hug. So for those who don’t, there’s no reason to worry about missing out on the benefits of hugs—as giving yourself a hug has also been shown to regulate emotional processes and reduce stress.

…In short, no matter how you do it…just hug it out!


Posted on

August 2, 2023