The Hug Drug: A Case for Cuddling

Why Hugs Are Awesome

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By now, you might have heard of Spoonr, a social-meeting app that helps you find a stranger close by to cuddle. Ostensibly, Spoonr is an app for cuddling, not cuddling as a prelude to sex. After your cuddling session, you are then encouraged to rate the interaction on Spoonr and report cuddling sessions that went uncomfortable.

The mere creation of an app for random cuddling hints at an intrinsic human need for intimacy.

Some research has been done on the science of hugging, and why warm, close and comfortable encounters are healthy and make us feel good, too.

Emotional Support and Oxytocin

Positive emotional support involves a complex set of inter-related behaviors including the following:

  • body language
  • facial expressions
  • emotional quality of speech
  • listening and responding
  • hand-holding
  • hugs
  • cuddling

More generally, these behaviors focus on positive emotion, intimacy, belonging and connectedness. Moreover, much psychology research suggests that positive emotional support may be linked to better cardiovascular health.

From a biochemistry perspective, scientists believe that positive emotional support may affect human physiology in part by the actions of a hormone called oxytocin. Although oxytocin has been classically associated with pregnancy and motherhood, it likely also plays a role in partner preference, social recognition, calmness, bonding and more.

Specifically, after response to stress, oxytocin is believed to inhibit sympathetic response and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) activity all while boosting parasympathetic cardiac control. In other words, during prolonged periods of time, oxytocin may attenuate stress and confer some cardioprotective benefits.

Additionally, estrogen receptors may potentiate nearby oxytocin receptors—making oxytocin's effects particularly powerful in women.

The Research on Hugs

In animal models (rats and other mammals), prolonged stroking or massage is associated with increased levels of oxytocin. Of note, such hormone effects aren't immediate but, instead, take several days to develop. Importantly, in rats, oxytocin release was tied to sustained reductions in blood pressure. These observations got researchers thinking that warm contact or hugs among people may boost oxytocin levels, too.

In addition to testing blood levels of oxytocin, researchers can dissect rats in order to assay levels of mRNA that codes for oxytocin. Human participants, on the other hand, can be tested only for oxytocin levels in the blood. Thus, whereas a link between oxytocin levels and cardioprotective benefit is more directly inferred in animals, in humans, it's very possible that unknown factors in addition to oxytocin may play a role.

In one small study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, oxytocin and norepinephrine (adrenaline) levels were examined in 38 heterosexual couples before, during and after hugging. Researchers found higher baseline blood levels of oxytocin and lower baseline levels of norepinephrine among participants in more positive and supportive relationships—relationships involving frequent shows of positive emotional support like hugging.

According to the authors of this study, such effects were particularly prevalent among women, and researchers suggested a positive feedback loop at play which reinforced baseline production of oxytocin. Moreover, in these women participants, researchers were able to link oxytocin to reduced baseline blood pressure and cardiovascular and sympathetic activity.

In a similar small study published in Biological Psychology, a different set of researchers examined oxytocin levels and blood pressure among premenopausal women before and after warm contacts or hugging with partners. These researchers also found that in women involved in positive and supportive relationships, baseline oxytocin levels were higher, and baseline blood pressure and heart rate readings were lower.

Based on emerging research, it appears that hugging may decrease stress and benefits your heart health--especially if you're a women. Granted, the studies that I cite are heavy on association, lower power (small sample sizes) and represent homogenous samples (heterosexual couples); nevertheless, from an intuitive perspective at least, we can all probably agree that hugging makes us feel good, and the prospect of resultant physiologic benefit is reasonable.

So all that being said, I encourage you to cuddle, hug and love your partner whoever he or she may be.  Furthermore, continue to cuddle and support your partner for years to come. Apparently, the benefits of warm contact take a little time to take hold, so, if you have yet to do so, it's a good idea to immediately make hugging, cuddling and other shows of positive emotional support for a loved one routine.

Selected Sources

Article titled "Effects of Partner Support on Resting Oxytocin, Cortisol, Norepinephrine, and Blood Pressure Before and After Warm Partner Contact" by KM Grewen and co-authors published in Psychosomatic Medicine in 2005. 

Article titled "More frequent partner hugs and higher oxytocin levels are linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate in premenopausal women" by KC Light and co-authors published in Biological Psychology in 2005. 

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