Think about the last time you held someone’s hand, or when someone gave you a nice strong hug. It made you feel relaxed and happy, right? The positive emotional feelings you get during hand-holding and hugging actually have a biological basis. Scientists know that such tactile acts of love and kindness between people increase the release of oxytocin, a hormone that is produced in the hypothalamus and is associated with feelings of contentment.
Even the simplest forms of touch can have positive benefits: for example, researchers have reported that the more often professional basketball players touch each other during games (slapping backs, fist bumps, handshakes, high fives, etc.) the more likely they are to perform well as individuals and as a team.
Recent research has even begun to shed light on the benefits of massage. One Canadian study went so far as to take tissue samples (biopsies) of leg muscles of young men after massage. In this study, the volunteers exercised for one hour and then they received a vigorous 10-minute massage on one leg but not the other. The investigators found that massage reduced the production of natural compounds called cytokines that are known to play a vital role in inflammation.
They also discovered that massage stimulated mitochondria, a cell’s power centre that supplies it with vital energy for basic functions and repair. In another study (sponsored by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the US), 29 healthy adults were randomly assigned to receive a 45-minute deep-tissue massage and another group of 29 were given a light massage. The people that got the deep tissue massage had significant decrease in cortisol levels. In addition the researchers found that the same group had an increase in infection-fighting white blood cells—essentially they showed a boost to their immune system. The other group of people who got the light massage also experienced a benefit: they were found to have higher levels of oxytocin.
More research is needed of course, but given what we know already about the benefits of touch, let’s all try to get (and give) as much touch as we can.