How Important Is Physical Contact To Immune Health?
Human beings are hardwired to need physical touch. The requirement for contact with others begins at birth and continues throughout one’s entire life. In some cases, physical touch can be either detrimental or beneficial to a person’s overall health depending on how much or how little they are getting.
Physical touch is so important that it is even one of the five main “love languages”. In terms of romantic love, it involves expressing and receiving affection through a variety of physical closeness and intimacy such as kissing, having sex, hugging, and holding hands. However, physical contact with others doesn’t have to be romantic. It can be a hug between friends or a parent and their child, a high five for a job well done, or simply putting your hand on someone’s shoulder when they’re venting about a stressful situation in their life.
While physical touch in relationships is important for basic human needs, it also plays a vital role in overall health. But how does physical touch benefit your health? And does it have an effect on how well your immune system fights off infection? Read on for all you need to know, including an answer to the question: how important is physical contact to immune health?
Why is physical touch important?
Emotional, mental, and physical health all benefit from physical touch. This is because of the way touch sets off a series of reactions in the body.
For example: if you are stressed out, your body releases a stress hormone known as cortisol. Cortisol can increase your blood sugar and put you into a state of fight-or-flight, which is characterized as the state of anxiety in which a person needs to decide if they are going to face danger or run from it. When it comes to physical touch and cortisol, research has found that simply being touched by another person in a comforting way can help to reduce cortisol production.
Touch also has the ability to calm physical functions that go along with stress, such as an increased heart rate and rise in blood pressure. It works to calm the body because of its effect on the vagus nerve, which connects the body to the brain. Physical touch can actually stimulate specific receptors that help deliver messages across the vagus nerve, essentially telling the body that it’s okay to slow down.
In terms of mental health, physical touch has been shown to aid in the stimulation of certain key neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. These neurotransmitters are associated with feelings of happiness and overall wellbeing. Physical touch also helps curb loneliness, which can be a key element in mental health disorder development.
What are the effects of lack of physical touch?
A lack of physical touch that is continuous, also referred to as skin hunger, touch starvation, or touch deprivation, can be detrimental to health in a variety of ways. A lack of physical touch can lead to:
- Higher levels of stress (and therefore higher levels of cortisol)
- Anxiety and depression
- Low life satisfaction
- Issues with sleep
In some cases, people who suffer from touch starvation may actually try to make up for the lack of physical contact by engaging in activities that simulate the feelings of being held or touched, such as wrapping themselves up in blankets, taking long showers, or cuddling with their pets.
Research has shown that one area that is greatly affected by a lack of physical touch is mental health. One particular study looked at how physical touch could improve feelings of depression or psychological distress and found that being touched greatly improved psychological wellbeing. This led to the conclusion that a lack of touch can in fact do the opposite.
How are touch and the immune system connected?
The connection between physical contact and immunity isn’t direct, but that doesn’t mean physical touch doesn’t have an effect on how well the immune system functions. It all boils down to what physical touch does for the chemicals being released in the body.
For example, cortisol levels can be lessened if there is someone there to physically comfort you during times of stress. When there is too much cortisol in your system, it can disrupt the way your immune system produces inflammatory mediators, which are messengers designed to promote an immune response when there is an invader present that needs to be taken care of. Too much cortisol can also lead to chronic inflammation and a lack of receptors being produced in immune cells, making both the cells and the body less equipped to fight off infection.
Serotonin is also important to immune function, and it gets released in proper amounts when a person has adequate physical touch in their lives. According to research, serotonin components are found in every cell of the immune system, and much of the regulation of immune actions throughout the body is performed or at least partly influenced by serotonin. For example, certain proteins designed to help with immune response, known as cytokines, are heavily modulated by serotonin. The neurotransmitter also helps with the activation of T-cells, and suppresses the release of certain substances that hinder immunity.
Considering the vast array of benefits surrounding physical touch – and the way a lack of contact can actually cause you to be more susceptible to illness – it’s easy to see why it’s an inherent need for all humans. So go give your loved ones a hug today – it might just boost your immune health, and theirs!