Paging Dr. Frischer: Hugs

In my mind, there are two types of people: huggers and non-huggers. Those of you who know me well are aware that I am definitely the former. I hug because I love people and value human contact. 

Some people, however, just aren’t the cuddly type. Regardless of your touchy-feely preferences, a hug can be an expression of warmth and friendliness, a gesture of love, kindness, sympathy, trust, greeting, or farewell. 

I believe that it benefits both parties, but is there any scientific explanation or evidence that this is true?

Hugging has been found to trigger several hormones and neurotransmitters: Our skin senses the pressure of touch through a network of tiny nerve endings and communicates this to the brain. This appears to trigger an increase in levels of the hormone oxytocin.

■Oxytocin increases levels of the hormones serotonin and dopamine, resulting in greater calm, and reduced depression and anxiety. Low dopamine levels are seen in those with depression and Parkinson’s disease. 

Oxytocin also causes a decrease in the heart rate and a drop in the stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine. This can lower blood pressure and stress, and increase feelings of contentment and relaxation.

■There’s evidence that oxytocin improves immune function and pain tolerance. In a 2015 study, researchers from Carnegie Mellon examined whether hugs could reduce susceptibility to the common cold after being exposed to the virus. Those who felt greater social support and reported receiving frequent hugs were less likely to come down with a cold, or had less severe symptoms. 

A 2015 study from King’s College in London found that oxytocin has analgesic effects, leading to a reduction in perceived pain intensity.

■Oxytocin is also known as the “bonding hormone” because it promotes attachment in relationships, and is felt to be responsible for mother-infant bonding.

Hugging has been shown to cause the release of endorphins. Endorphins are hormones that relieve pain by blocking pain pathways, and soothe aches by increasing circulation to soft tissues.

Hugging reduces the levels of circulating cortisol. Lower levels of cortisol allow the mind to calm down and the body to relax. It also helps to decrease cortisol-induced hyperglycemia and diabetes.

Here is one more important finding. Most of us worry about our mortality, particularly as we age. A study published in the journal Psychological Science revealed that hugging and touching reduced that concern. The study showed that even hugging an inanimate object like a teddy bear helped to soothe fears. 

In fact, simply imagining hugging a person you love can cause the brain to release serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins, triggering feelings of happiness and joy.

Just between you and me, I had intended to continue hugging on a daily basis regardless of what I found in this research. Hugging triggers a massive release of neurohormones, giving us confidence, strengthening our bonds with one another, building trust, alleviating sadness, tension and anxiety; and bringing us joy and happiness. 

Sometimes the simplest treatments are indeed the best!
Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.