How Hugs Make You Healthier: Five Ways Physical Touch is Surprisingly Good For Your Health!

In honor of National Hugging Day, which is observed on Sunday, January 21, we wanted to take the opportunity to share some ways in which physical touch is surprisingly good for your health!  

The latest research shows rates of loneliness in the U.S. have climbed 16% over the past decade, due in part to the fact that we tend to communicate with coworkers, family and friends virtually.  While technology is important, expedient and convenient, it can decrease the in-person encounters we have with each other, leading to decreased opportunities for physical touch.

Decreased physical contact with others can lead to a phenomenon called “Touch Starvation,” which causes depressed mood, insomnia, increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and elevated blood pressure.  

The good news is that Touch Starvation has a simple antidote: Hugs, hugs and more hugs!  

As human beings, we’re wired to touch and be touched.  Without enough physical contact, children can develop attachment issues, emotional dysfunction, and increased aggression.  In adulthood, we continue to need physical contact with others -- whether sexual or non-sexual -- in order to feel physically and emotionally healthy.

So why is physical touch so important?  Here are just a few reasons!

1. Physical touch creates a safe, supportive community. 

In the animal world, primates can spend up to 20% of their waking hours grooming each other -- which serves not only to improve their hygiene, but also leads to stronger communities, fewer acts of aggression, and an increased ability to cope with stressful situations.  

While we’re guessing you probably don’t spend hours a day grooming your loved ones, the same principle is true: when we hug each other, give high-fives  and fist-bumps, or rest a hand on someone’s arm while we’re chatting with them, we’re more likely to feel safe, supported and collaborative than if we were in a no-touch environment.  It’s even been shown that NBA teams who touch each other most have the highest number of wins!

2. Physical touch is good for your brain.

Hugs that last at least 20 seconds cause receptors in your skin to send a message to your brain that stimulates the release of serotonin and dopamine, which can prevent depression.  It also stimulates the release of oxytocin, the hormone that helps you feel relaxed, happy and bonded.

3. Hugs improve your immune system.

It turns out that the gentle pressure applied to your chest during a hug acts like a massage to the thymus -- the gland that sits between your lungs, just above your heart.  This gentle pressure stimulates the thymus to release more infection-fighting T-cells into your bloodstream.  With more T-cells circulating throughout your body, you’re more likely to be able to fight off a bacterial, viral or fungal infection.

4. Physical touch is good for your cardiovascular health.

Multiple studies have shown that higher rates of physical touch translate into lower incidences of hypertension and cardiovascular disease.  Hugging also slows the release of cortisol, the stress hormone that can cause inflammation, insomnia, heart disease and weight gain.

5. Physical touch creates positive outcomes.

It’s amazing how powerful even small gestures can be!  For example, when librarians patted the hand of a child checking out a book, that child child was more likely to return to the library and check out more books than the children who weren’t touched.  

In the hospital setting, patients with complex diseases had better outcomes when their doctors patted them on the back and made good eye contact with them.

Touch even helps you get a dance partner!  Researchers found that if a man gently rests his hand on a woman’s arm while asking her to dance, she’s more likely to say yes.


From all of us at GGUC, we hope you enjoy celebrating National Hugging Day, and look for opportunities to give and receive the physical touch that we all need to stay happy and healthy!

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We’re here seven days a week if you need us!  Make an appointment online, or simply walk into any of our six locations to get the care you need.

Author
Sarah Thebarge MMSc, PA-C Sarah Thebarge earned her physician assistant degree at Yale School of Medicine, and then studied journalism at Columbia School of Journalism. She has been a physician assistant and a freelance journalist since 2004. In addition to caring for patients at Golden Gate Urgent Care, Sarah frequently volunteers her medical skills in the developing world. Her writing has appeared in Huffington Post, USA Today and National Geographic, and her blog was featured on MSNBC.com. She is the author of the memoir The Invisible Girls and the upcoming book WELL: Healing our Beautiful, Broken World from a Hospital in West Africa. She currently lives in the Mission District of San Francisco.

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