We all know a hug feels good, but what's the connection between hugs and heart health?
Well, it appears that human contact through hugs lowers blood pressure and reduces stress, which cuts the risk of heart disease. Hugs have also been shown to improve overall mood, increase nerve activity, and a host of other beneficial effects. Positive physical touch has an immediate anti-stress effect, slowing breathing and heart rate.
"A good hug speaks directly to your body and soul, making you feel loved and special," says Mihalko Baczynski, a relationship coach.
"Hugging is all natural; it is organic, naturally sweet, no pesticides, non-fattening, no carbohydrates, no preservatives, no artificial or genetically engineered ingredients, and 100% wholesome" says Dorothy M. Neddermeyer, PhD.
Not only are hugs completely natural, they don't cost anything either! Hugs are free! And best of all, the supply is endless.
A University of North Carolina study showed that hugs increased levels of the hormone oxytocin and reduced blood pressure.
There is a scientific explanation for the seemingly magical qualities of a hug that researchers uncovered. Each time we hug, we increase the level of oxytocin in the blood. This hormone triggers a “caring” or "bonding" response in both men and women (oxytocin is most well known for stimulating contractions of the uterus during labor and the release of milk during breast-feeding).
Several animal studies lend support to this idea; for example, oxytocin levels rise and blood pressure falls in rats when their bellies are stroked.
A daily dose of oxytocin from hugging can help protect us from heart disease. And while it works for both genders, women seem to be the greater benefactors as exhibited by the second phase of the University of North Carolina study.
The North Carolina study also reinforced research findings that support from a partner, in this case a hug from a loved one, can have beneficial effects on heart health.
University of Toronto psychiatrist Brian Baker who studies how marriage affects men's hearts says, "Male heart patients with good marriages stay healthier than do those living with conflict." One can presume that men and women in a good marriage probably hug more than those in conflict.
Elevated blood pressure is one of the main risk factors for heart disease - about one in three US adults has high blood pressure! If hugs lower blood pressure (and they do), just think of the positive benefits of a whole lot of hugging!
We know hugs are important for babies and children. Without physical contact, infants fail to thrive. According to Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist at Bath University, researchers have found that touch and hugging are needed for basic positive emotions to develop. "Touch affects the cerebellar brain system, an area of the brain where basic positive emotions such as trust and affection probably come from," Blair says.
Most of us are comfortable hugging children. Not everyone feels comfortable hugging adults. One woman said, "Somewhere along the line as I matured from child to woman, my father stopped hugging me. I couldn't tell you when and I can only speculate why - that he was uncomfortable or unsure about hugging a young woman. I realized I missed our hugs so one day when I was visiting, I made a point of hugging him - not just a quick cheek to cheek squeeze, but a big bear hug. He seemed a little surprised at first but returned the hug. From then on I always gave him a hug and before long, he was initiating hugs too. That was many years and many hugs ago, and he's gone now, but I still feel the benefit of those wonderful hugs."
When a person is hugged, their comfort level is increased. It creates feelings of security and a bond or connection between two people. After my own father died, my mother made a comment that the worst thing about living alone was missing the hugs. I lived on the other side of the country so I could only send my hugs over the phone. Not the same! So she got her hugs at her knitting group and through her church family.
If you recently had heart surgery, you may need to forgo the bear hugs until you heal. But find other ways to have physical contact and touch with your loved ones. Touch, even holding hands or stroking, can reduce stress and pain.
Several sources suggest that everyone needs at least four hugs a day for healthy survival, eight hugs a day for emotional strength, and 12 hugs a day to really grow and be empowered. Stop and think about just how often you give or get a hug.
Start by giving your love a healthy hug today. Include more hugs in your daily routine. Ask yourself whose day could I improve by giving them one or more hugs today? Not only will you be helping them, but you'll benefit too.
Some people don't like their personal space to be invaded. Others may feel too vulnerable at times to want to be touched. So proceed with caution if you feel this way or if you sense discomfort in someone else. For some people, it may take a bit of getting used to!
Live alone? No one to hug? Volunteer with children or old folks. That will give you an opportunity for healthy hugging. Consider getting involved with the free hug campaign.
How about getting a pet? Cuddling a pet has been found to have a soothing effect that reduces stress levels in heart attack victims similar to hugging. See more about the benefits of pets on heart health.
Alberta's Lieutenant Governor, Lois Hole, also known as "the Queen of Hugs" died January 7, 2005 at the age of 71 after a two-year battle with cancer. She was a successful business woman and best-selling author, a university chancellor, and the lieutenant governor of Alberta, but the thing she will likely be best remembered for is her hugs.
She hugged everyone - children, graduating students, business men and women, performers, diplomats and politicians (often breaking with protocol), and the media - and they hugged back.
During her years as chancellor of the university, she often extended a warm and personal hug to each graduand. I experienced this firsthand when I graduated from Athabasca University. She was on the Board of Directors of that university at the time. As I walked across the stage she caught my eye. I knew Lois through our community. She motioned for me to come over to where she was sitting on the stage and gave me a big hug. You know, that was more important to me than the conferring of the degree! She continued the practice as lieutenant-governor, adding a touch of warmth and intimacy to an otherwise very formal and somewhat austere position.
She set an example for so many people, in so many ways, but the gift of her warm embrace is the one that I'll remember.
Although my research has confirmed that there's a positive link between hugs and heart health, I came up with my own theory about why we like being hugged years and years ago when I was pregnant. It occurred to me that a hug simulates the periodic squeezing we all feel as babies in the womb - the ultimate place of security. A hug takes us back to the very start of our lives when we knew no fear, no hardship, and no threats.
One of my daughters gave me this saying many years ago and I just came across it again the other day. I don't know who the author is but I love the sentiment.
"Hugs are not only nice, they are needed. Hugs can help relieve pain and depression, make the healthy healthier, the happy happier, and the most secure among us even more so.
Hugging feels good, overcomes fears, eases tension, provides stretching exercises if you are tall.
Hugging also does not upset the environment, saves heat, is portable, requires no special equipment, makes happy days happier and impossible days possible."
Send us your thoughts on hugs and heart health.