by Epiphany Jordan
When it comes to taking care of our bodies, there are four areas commonly addressed by health professionals: nutrition, exercise/movement, sleep and hydration. Yet there is a fifth fundamental component that is rarely considered: consensual human touch.
Americans in particular live touch-deprived lives. It is possible to communicate sympathy, love and gratitude with a one-second touch, but we rarely touch people unless there is a romantic or sexual connection.
With the advent of electronic communication, this trend has only increased. Recent reports in The New York Times, Washington Post, Harvard Law Petrie-Flom Center blog and others examine how loneliness is becoming a public health epidemic that contributes to many physical illnesses, including obesity, heart attacks, metastatic cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness has been found to stimulate the genes that cause inflammation and turn off the genes that produce antibodies that fight infection.
Our skin is our largest organ and contains Merkel cells, which respond to light touch. When we are touched pleasurably, our orbitofrontal cortex is activated, releasing oxytocin and endorphins. Touch also reduces activity in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which is instrumental in the body’s stress system. (While there is touch involved in massage, massage works the muscles underneath the skin and doesn’t concentrate on the skin itself.)
“Touch is the primary language of compassion, love and gratitude—emotions at the heart of trust and cooperation,” writes Dacher Keltner in his 2009 book Born To Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. Chimpanzees spend 20 percent of their time grooming each other and to spread trust, goodwill and cooperation.
“When I receive a very friendly form of touch, a stroke to the arm, pat on the back, it releases oxytocin, it shuts down stress-related parts of the brain, like the amygdala and the locus coeruleus, it activates a branch of the nervous system called the vagus nerve which is involved in connection, and controls your immune system in part as well,” said Keltner during a 2012 interview on Big Think.
Lack of touch disproportionately affects men who do not have a partner or children; some men will only be touched by another human when they get their hair cut every four to six weeks. Many people will not ask friends to touch them for fear of embarrassment, awkwardness or misconstrued intentions. Immersive touch therapy offers an opportunity for people to get the physical, mental and emotional benefits of touch from a professional in a safe environment. The beneficial effects last long after the experience.
When we are born, touch is as important as food and sleep for our survival, and also essential for physical, emotional, behavior and social development. Studies performed by the Touch Research Institute of Miami have found that infant massage and cuddling enhances growth and weight gain.
“Pressure to the skin stimulates brain activity, slows down heart rate, lowers blood pressure, allows for deeper sleep, makes the babies less irritable and ultimately helps mental development and physical growth,” said Tiffany Field, Ph.D., and director of the Touch Research Institute, during a 2014 interview. Field has been studying the effects of touch for four decades, starting when her own daughter was born prematurely in 1976.
A Nov. 4, 2014 report in The Miami Herald states that neonatal touch therapy is used in about 40 percent of neonatal intensive care units nationwide and results in savings of about $10,000 per infant by shortening hospital stays by nearly a week. In a 1996 study done in Israel, babies that were cuddled for one hour a day for 14 days showed better sleep patterns, steadier respiration and heart rates, better affective attention and better stress management long after they left the hospital.
While touch provides much-needed human connection, it has a biological mechanism that can boost health and wellness. Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the hypothalamus and distributed by the posterior pituitary gland. Traditionally oxytocin has been associated with childbirth, lactation and mother/infant bonding but oxytocin has a host of physiological benefits including healthy muscle maintenance and repair; counteracting the effects of cortisol in the heart; reducing inflammation for quicker wound healing; aiding in digestion; improved sleep; lowering blood pressure in men; boosting the immune system; appetite suppression in men; alleviating migraines; and counteracting the effects of alcohol.
Human touch is a simple yet powerful approach to wellness. The next time a hug is needed, go ahead and ask someone. Good health depends on it.
Epiphany Jordan specializes in Karuna sessions, offering immersive touch therapy, a protocol that mimics the feeling of being held by our mothers as infants. For more information, call 512-814-8948 or visit KarunaSessions.com.