«Our skin is our security system, our sensations detector and our gateway to the world around us. Touch is the very first sense we develop in the human embryo – less than eight weeks after being conceived, an embryo is barely 2.5 centimeters long and has neither eyes nor ears, but its skin is already highly developed.” – Vanessa Van Edwards: The Power and Science of Cuddling
A few things are necessary for someone to develop into a well-functioning person. Of course, food, water, and shelter are the three “essential” needs; but humans also require interaction with others. We also need touch – and we’re going to explain why this is.
As Ms. Van-Edwards quoted above, skin is the first human organ to develop within the womb. A human embryo cannot see or hear but does have the sense of touch – just eight weeks after conception. Touch is also the last sense to diminish in old age.
Premature babies provide excellent insight into the importance of touch. Consider this study undertaken by Dr. Tiffany Field, director of the department of pediatrics at the University of Miami School of Medicine:
Randomized, controlled studies have documented greater weight gain in preterm newborns receiving moderate pressure massage therapy. These include our studies on preterm newborns who received 5-10 days of massage therapy and showed a 21-48% greater increase in weight gain and hospital stays of 3-6 days less than control infants.
In other words, premature babies – often in a delicate, unstable condition due to underdevelopment – gained nearly ¼ to ½ of their original weight due to touch. This accelerated weight gain stabilized the newborns’ health who were then able to go home in less time.
Beautiful stuff, isn’t it?
It isn’t just babies, either. While our preference for touch may change as we age, it nonetheless remains important to the brain.
Here we’ll discuss 7 reasons to touch, cuddle and hold each other! Some of the science behind the power of touch is quite fascinating.
1. CUDDLING RELEASES “FEEL GOOD” CHEMICALS
Oxytocin is a versatile hormone that plays important roles in social bonding and sexual reproduction. Cuddling is one way to release this “feel good” chemical, which strengthens the connection we feel with our partner. As you’ll see later on, oxytocin also produces other pleasurable sensations.
2. CUDDLING STRENGTHENS THE IMMUNE SYSTEM
Both love and intimate touching stimulate the release of oxytocin. When we cuddle, our bodies create a cocktail of hormones that also help to fight infection. Put simply, intimacy (especially touch and cuddling) can provide a temporary boost to the immune system.
3. CUDDLING CAN “TAKE IT TO THE NEXT STEP”
When we engage in touch, intimate or otherwise, the brain releases a flood of dopamine. Dopamine is the brain chemical responsible for reward-motivated behavior and feelings of well-being. A warm embrace and kiss after a long day’s work, or snuggling while watching some TV, initiates a dopamine response – and this can lead to some bedroom activities.
4. CUDDLING STRENGTHENS A WOMAN’S BOND
Here again, the chemical oxytocin is at play. As mentioned, oxytocin can strengthen the bond in a relationship. This same bonding mechanism also applies to a mother and her baby. Oxytocin helps new mothers in other ways, as well. First, oxytocin eases the process of breastfeeding. Second, the chemical also encourages sleep – something that a new mother desperately needs!
5. CUDDLING CURTAILS STRESS
In a study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology (really?), researchers discovered the potent stress-reducing effects of oxytocin:
– Oxytocin levels increase in response to a “wide variety of stressful stimuli.”
– Oxytocin suppresses physiological stress levels
– Oxytocin lowers norepinephrine (an adrenaline precursor) and decreases blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol (stress) hormones.
These stress-relieving properties are very helpful in our relationships.
6. CUDDLING EASES COMMUNICATION WITH YOUR PARTNER
Listen, we all have incredibly stressful days when nothing seems to go right. On days like this, it may be difficult to summon the energy needed to communicate with your partner. This is where cuddling comes into play.
Odds are that your partner can ably interpret when you’ve had a rough day. Instead of dwelling in your negativity, initiate some physical contact with your partner. You’ll immediately feel better, your partner will love it, and your loving behavior will communicate for you.
7. CUDDLING BENEFITS YOUR BRAIN AND BODY
While oxytocin is the primary chemical associated with touch, cuddling can positively impact our brain – it does so by influencing the hormones cortisol and dopamine.
When we’re stressing, the body releases cortisol (“the stress hormone.”) Cortisol decreases our cognitive abilities, increases anxiety, and causes hypertension (high blood pressure.)
Dopamine, for all intents and purposes, is the mirror opposite of cortisol. Dopamine, aptly labeled “the pleasure hormone,” is responsible for numerous brain functions: attention, behavior, cognition, desire, mood, and – of course – feelings of pleasure.