Who doesn’t enjoy a good cuddle?
Well, there is Michael Kelso of That 70s Show, who once remarked to his girlfriend, “Why would we cuddle when we could do it?" As crazy as it may sound, we’re about to answer that question here.
We all know that cuddling just feels great. That much is practically beyond dispute. And frankly, it should be more than enough of a reason to make cuddling a regular part of your life.
But cuddling is more than just a happy way to spend some time; it also has numerous health benefits. Many of these benefits stem from the fact that cuddling, and physical contact in general, stimulates the release of oxytocin, the “trust" hormone. Fun fact: Oxytocin is also released by the party drug ecstasy, and explains why those who use the drug feel a sense of intimate bonding with those whom they are with.
Unlike ecstasy, however, cuddling is practically risk-free! And with its health and happiness promoting qualities, you should find a way to make cuddling a part of your lifestyle. Although cuddling is the primary focus of this article, it is really oxytocin that is responsible for most of the benefits, and therefore, other methods of increasing oxytocin release will have similar benefits.
Health Benefits of Cuddling
Okay, so besides making you feel good, what can cuddling do for you? A whole lot, it turns out!
- Lowers risk of heart disease. One study looked to why social support decreased the risk of cardiovascular disease, and found two primary mechanisms: altered health behaviors and changes in neuroendocrine pathways, both of which are caused by oxytocin release.1 In terms of risk factors, it looks like oxytocin has its strongest effects on blood pressure.2 In fact, more frequent hugging in women significantly reduces blood pressure.3 These cardioprotective effects happen for men as well, but to a greater degree in women.
- Significant reduction in stress/cortisol levels. This benefit should be unsurprising to most people. Oxytocin has been shown to decrease cortisol levels in a small study in men, with high reproducibility.4 Men with social support and oxytocin exposure have increased calmness and decreased cortisol in response to a stress test.5 Perhaps that’s why oxytocin has been suggested as an aid in PTSD treatment, along with therapy.6
- Immune system improvements. Oxytocin has a protective effect against inflammation and the effects of oxidative stress.7 Both social interaction and oxytocin have been shown to improve wound healing in rodents as well as humans.8,9,10 In another interesting study, a single 45-minute session of Swedish Massage Therapy was shown to significantly improve immune system markers, an effect not mediated by oxytocin.11 In other words, something else about the physical touch also helped improve immune function.
- Improved sleep. In a preliminary study, oxytocin was found to improve sleep architecture by reducing sleep latencies, increasing sleep efficiency, and increasing the percentage of REM sleep episodes.12
- Pain relief. Oxytocin was found to have analgesic effects on lower back pain in both rats and humans.13 Additionally, oxytocin increases the pain threshold in rats, so more of a pain-causing stimulus is needed before they subjectively experience pain.14 And in one terminally ill cancer patient, oxytocin administration decreased their pain by 88%!15
As you can see, the physical and social contact that cuddling provides can have a wide array of health benefits, and provide some less obvious reasons to make cuddling a part of your daily life.
Social and Relationship Benefits
There are also non-physical benefits to cuddling that are well worth mentioning. Most of these are fairly self-explanatory, so I won’t spend too much time dwelling on them.
- Reduces social anxiety. Teenage boys with a disorder commonly associated with social anxiety made more eye contact after administration of oxytocin in one study.16 And considering the cortisol decreases that are seen with increased oxytocin, I would imagine that anxieties of all kinds, including social anxiety, would be alleviated to some degree.
- Happier relationships. This is another unsurprising one. More oxytocin is released in both men and women after physical contact when they perceive their partner as being more supportive.17 In fact, couples who sleep closer to each other claim to be in happier relationships, although the causation could go in either direction. We do know that oxytocin increases trust in humans by making us more willing to take risks with regards to social interrelationships.18 It’s hardly a stretch to think that this would allow for the deepening of relationships, say, through sharing more personal things about each other.
- Improved emotional intelligence. One of the more interesting effects of oxytocin is that it seems to improve emotional intelligence through helping people better recognize emotions and facial expressions in others. These effects are especially noteworthy for people who particularly need improvement in this area, such as schizophrenics or autistic people.19,20 But the same effect is also evident in healthy individuals. While previously thought to be due to increased eye-scanning and eye contact, it appears to improve emotion recognition independently of these factors.21 Not only that, but emotion recognition improved even when faces were “masked" by neutral-looking faces after very brief exposure to ones showing emotion.22
Clearly, cuddling and physical contact can be an aid to your social life and relationships.
How to Get More Oxytocin, Even When You’re Single
Cuddling is easy…if you have somebody to cuddle with. But there are plenty of ways to ensure a solid flow of oxytocin even when you are single. All kinds of physical contact with other human beings will do the trick, plus social interaction in general, as well as a handful of other means.
Keep in mind, though, that more oxytocin is released when you actually like the person who you are dealing with. If you give a hug to someone you despise, you can expect to be more stressed out, rather than feeling the nice, oxytocin-induced calm.
Next time you see a friend, give them a hug, pound it, high five, etc. Don’t be shy about slappin’ skin – this will be the primary way you can release oxytocin and collect all its benefits. And if you have a pet, go ahead and spend some time with it, which will also increase oxytocin levels.23 And while you might not have any specific affinity for a massage therapist, getting a massage is still one of the best ways to gain the beneficial effects of touch.24
Social contact (even without physical contact) is beneficial as well. So make more eye contact with people, give out gifts (or compliments), laugh, and so on. Even social media may raise oxytocin levels, but the usual caveats still apply. Social media is no substitute for real social contact.
Those are for sure the best ways to get the oxytocin flowing and reap the various benefits, but there are other ways to potentially release a little bit extra. If there is nobody around to hug, you can imagine yourself being hugged by someone you love. Some traditionally relaxing activities like taking a walk or deep breathing may also work. Consider taking a warm bath, because some mild heat exposure may release oxytocin as well.25 Finally, listening to music that you find calming is a surefire way to get more oxytocin exposure.26
Those among us who are constantly on the lookout for new ways to become happier and healthier would do well to add cuddling to their list. And compared to many other healthy behaviors, it is vastly easier to do. Heck, it is one of the laziest activities there is!
While cuddling is certainly no substitute for moving around and exercising, it is a wonderful thing to be doing when you aren’t being as active.