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Stress & Mood Features

Can we survive without hugs?

What role does hugging play in our health? Are these exchanges of affection essential to our survival? Discover how many hugs a day science recommends.
Mother and daughter cuddling
A hug promotes the secretion of several ‘feel-good hormones’.
Rédaction Supersmart.
2023-03-15Comments (0)

Cuddling: a protective act that goes back to infancy

Let’s start by defining exactly what cuddling is: it’s prolonged and affectionate physical contact between two individuals in which they hold each other close.. A hug is literally a non-sexual embrace.

This prolonged physical contact is first and foremost that between a mother or father and their new-born baby. Studies have shown that premature babies who had immediate skin-to-skin contact with their mother post-delivery gained 47% more weight than those placed in an incubator. Other studies have shown that cuddles in early childhood induce changes that affect gene expression in the baby, an effect which potentially extends until adolescence.

Thus each cuddle automatically and unconsciously takes us back to this first protective act at the beginning of life, specific to all mammals.

The hormones triggered by cuddling, and their benefits

In adulthood, the act of cuddling continues to trigger the release of sufficient oxytocin (the ‘love and attachment hormone’) to stimulate the immune system and to maintain one’s place within a group of individuals (the tribe or pack, whichever it may be) (1-6). Indeed some doctors suggest that 4 hugs a day will get you through winter without catching a cold (7)…

If oxytocin is considered the hormone of sociability and attachment it’s because it influences trust, empathy, generosity, sexuality, marital and social ties; it promotes protective behaviour in the mother towards her child; it stimulates lactation in nursing mothers; it inhibits stress hormones in social interactions, etc.

In addition to oxytocin, hugging triggers the release of endorphins (pain-relieving/feel-good hormones), dopamine (pleasure/motivation hormone) and serotonin (happiness hormone). A genuine weapon against depression!

A good hug lasts 20 seconds

According to a well-known American psychotherapist, we need “4 hugs a day to survive, 8 to function, 12 to grow”.

In order to produce these effects, a hug should last at least 20 seconds. But studies show most people actually hug for just 4-5 seconds, hence the idea that we need this magic figure of 4 hugs a day to ‘survive’.

Any additional hugs thus constitute a bonus: several studies have demonstrated positive effects in terms of empathy, confidence in oneself and in others, immune defences, etc. from a daily oxytocin injection which provides the same amount of oxytocin produced by an actual 20-second hug.

People of all ages then, need at least one big, 20-second hug a day (or 4 small hugs), if not to survive then at least to remain physically and mentally healthy.

What alternatives to hugs and cuddles are there for increasing confidence and relaxation?

There are several potential ways of combatting stress and maximising your sense of well-being.

One option is to take L-theanine, a nootropic molecule found mainly in green tea. L-theanine (available in larger quantities in the supplement Suntheanine) is thought to increase brain levels of dopamine and serotonin.

Another is S-adenosyl-L-methionine, or SAM-e, a metabolite which also promotes production of these two feel-good hormones.

The plant Mucuna pruriens meanwhile, contains a molecule with multiple benefits : levodopa, a natural precursor of dopamine.

You can also take wild green oat (see Natural Dopamine Support) or PEA, another effective dopamine precursor, available in the supplement PEA and in the blue-green algae Aphanizomenon flos-aquae (AFA Extract), excellent for maintaining a positive mood.

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References

  1. https://www.revmed.ch/revue-medicale-suisse/2012/revue-medicale-suisse-333/l-ocytocine-hormone-de-l-amour-de-la-confiance-et-du-lien-conjugal-et-social
  2. BUCHHEIM, Anna, HEINRICHS, Markus, GEORGE, Carol, et al.Oxytocin enhances the experience of attachment security. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2009, vol. 34, no 9, p. 1417-1422.
  3. GORDON, Ilanit, ZAGOORY-SHARON, Orna, LECKMAN, James F., et al.Oxytocin, cortisol, and triadic family interactions. Physiology & behavior, 2010, vol. 101, no 5, p. 679-684.
  4. LI, Tong, WANG, Ping, WANG, Stephani C., et al.Approaches mediating oxytocin regulation of the immune system. Frontiers in immunology, 2017, vol. 7, p. 693.
  5. STRATHEARN, Lane. Maternal neglect: oxytocin, dopamine and the neurobiology of attachment. Journal of neuroendocrinology, 2011, vol. 23, no 11, p. 1054-1065.
  6. MACGILL, Markus. What is the link between love and oxytocin. Medical News Today, 2017.
  7. COHEN, Sheldon Ed et SYME, S. I. Social support and health. Academic Press, 1985.
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