I just love hugging my newborn granddaughter and look forward to the day she hugs me in return. Something happens to me, something transformative. Honestly, it feels like an I.V. morphine-love drip releasing into my veins. Who needs opioids?
Indeed, research shows me that the love drip is called oxytocin. Some experts say that there are some health-related benefits of hugging to the release of oxytocin, often called “the bonding hormone” because it promotes attachment in relationships, including mothers and their newborn babies. Oxytocin is made primarily in the hypothalamus in the brain, and some of it is released into the bloodstream through the pituitary gland. But some of it remains in the brain, where it influences mood, behavior and physiology.
In a U.S. News article “The Benefits of Hugging” written by Stacy Colino, she states that a hug a day, just might keep the doctor away and that besides helping you feel close and connected to people you care about, it turns out that hugs can bring a host of health benefits to your body and mind.
Colino referred to psychologist Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine who explained how hugging fits in: “When you’re hugging or cuddling with someone, [he or she is] stimulating pressure receptors under your skin in a way that leads to a cascade of events including an increase in vagal activity, which puts you in a relaxed state.”
The hugging and oxytocin release that comes with it can then have trickle-down effects throughout the body, causing a decrease in heart rate and a drop in the stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine.
There’s also some evidence that oxytocin can improve immune function and pain tolerance — pain that many have turned to opioids for relief. With regard to moods, oxytocin is known to increase levels of feel-good hormones such as serotonin and dopamine, which may be why it has calming effects. “It reduces depression and anxiety, and it may have an effect on attentional disorders,” Field says. Again, these are symptoms that many have turned to opioids for relief.
In 1982 Ruth Harris started the “Hugs Not Drugs” project and was ultimately sponsored by Nancy Reagan in 1991 whose own slogan was “Just Say No” as part of the campaign on America’s war on drugs.
All of this is not to say opioids don’t have their place, but today there’s an even bigger drug epidemic and an even bigger war on opioids. Imagine where we’d be today if we’d practiced a little more hugging. “Like diet and exercise, you need a steady daily dose of hugging,” Field says. But the quality of the hugging counts, too. “If you get a flimsy hug, that’s not going to do it,” Field says. “You need a firm hug” to stimulate oxytocin release.
So starting today, why not reach out and hug someone; what’s it going to hurt? But first, try wrapping your arms around yourself and giving a gentle but firm squeeze. You’ll be ready to go out and peddle some “Hugs Not Opioids.”
I’m headed over now to cuddle my granddaughter. I might even change a diaper!