The Power of Natural Oxytocin and Why Cuddling Can Boost Your Immune System
Did you know that there’s a direct physiological response that leads from hugs and cuddling to better health? The link is the hormone oxytocin, also known as the “attachment hormone,” the “trust hormone” or even the “mama bear hormone.”
Physiologically, oxytocin is known to play a key role in childbirth and lactation, and potentially in orgasm as well. But its most intriguing effects may be in the social realm. Unlike many other hormones, oxytocin directly changes the behavior of an organism toward other organisms. It promotes various forms of attachment, from friendship, to sexual attraction, to parental love. And perhaps toward the goal of promoting attachment, it causes a number of stress-reducing and health-promoting physiological changes.
Unsurprisingly, one of the most reliable ways to release oxytocin is to receive a loving touch, such as from cuddling – but even a tender gaze has been shown to cause levels of the hormone to spike.
The miraculous effects of oxytocin
Studies have shown that oxytocin can directly boost your immune system, by increasing levels of other, infection-fighting hormones in the body. But it has a number of indirect immune benefits, as well.
Oxytocin reduces pain levels, thereby reducing overall stress in the body. It also directly counters the effects of the stress hormone cortisol. Because cortisol and other stress hormones directly depress the immune system (to prioritize short-term survival instead), oxytocin thereby restores your body to balance and boosts immune activity. Oxytocin also promotes better sleep, which leads to better immune function, both directly and indirectly (again, by reducing stress hormone levels).
It’s not just your immune health that these measures benefit. Better sleep, less stress and less pain means less inflammation, fewer free radicals in the body, and a lower risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease.
Notably, oxytocin has also been shown to reduce cravings for drugs and food, perhaps by increasing feelings of contentment and reducing dissatisfaction. It has shown promise as a treatment for neurological disorders such as autism, dementia and schizophrenia.
Recent studies have also associated oxytocin with the “tend and defend” drive. In new parents, oxytocin seems to be related to the drive to aggressively defend the infant from perceived threats (the “mama bear” effect). At least one study, conducted by researchers from Claremont Graduate University and published in the journal PLOS One, found that oxytocin may underlie a similar effect in soldiers. In that study, men given an oxytocin nasal spray were more likely to behave defensively and cooperatively toward those they perceived as part of their group, and also more likely to behave aggressively toward those in outgroups – but only in a defensive, not offensive, fashion.
Oxytocin isn’t the only reason to cuddle
When you cuddle with someone, it helps you take a step back from your busy life and focus on being present with another person (or pet). For parents, in particular, cuddling increases bonding with babies and young children; unsurprisingly, the oxytocin release from cuddling helps mothers breastfeed more effectively.
Cuddling promotes both emotional and physical health by improving your relationships. Touch has become uncommon in this society, with the possible exception being between family members or romantic or sexual partners. But touch is one of the strongest ways of creating and deepening connections with other living beings, be they humans, animals or plants. And having strong connections with others is one of the greatest predictors of good health and a long life.
So what are you waiting for? Get out there and cuddle a lover, a family member, a friend or a pet.
Don’t have someone to cuddle now? You’re in luck: Studies show that even giving yourself a brief shoulder rub can cause your oxytocin levels to increase.
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