Cuddling Charges your Battery - Actually a Real thing?
We've all had that day before. The early morning, the long day. That feeling that you can't possibly get through the day without at least 4 large double-shot white chocolate lattes (the sugar is for your poor withering soul, obviously.) And by the time you get home, it takes every little bit that's left out of you to not just fall on the floor and stay there.
And since this is your doctor's blog, I'll tell you that a couple weeks of that, and you're headed to an unstable blood sugar control, decreased immune response, and likely a more erratic HRV - a marker correlated with all-cause mortality. Luckily, with your friendly neighborhood naturopathic doctor, we can do a lot to increase your resilience to daily stressors so that you don't need the caffeine and sugar to get you through it. That said, there is an easy, human thing that is both commonly accessible to us, and grossly underrated as a stress coping technique - Cuddling.
Cuddling - Your at-home Anti-Depressant
When it comes to research on brain chemicals and behavior, there's a lot said and researched about sex. But oftentimes, non-erotic cuddling provides just as many health benefits. Oxytocin, the pair bonding hormone, is one that we think of when it comes to bonding with other humans. While most famous for its role in labor and lactation, in recent years it has also gained a lot of scientific interest in human social behaviors and its role in inhibiting stress induced activity of the HPA axis (Neumann 2002). Because oxytocin receptors distribute widely throughout our brains, it affects our stress through multiple pathways.
First, oxytocin decreases activation in the amygdala in response to stimuli normally associated with fear (Petrovic et al. 2008). Think of the amygdala as the alarm center of our brain. It takes new information from the outside world and helps us understand whether it is safe or not. Therefore, it is one of the big players in our brain of how "stressed out" we feel. Since problems in regulating the amygdala is a part of lot of mood disorders (Drevets 2003), oxytocin's control over it shows us just how important this hormone is in our stress control.
Second, oxytocin may have a regulatory effect on neurons that produce serotonin (Yoshida et al. 2009). Seeing as serotonin is one of the most popular neurotransmitters in the medical world, with several classes of anti-depressants dedicated to regulating its concentration in the brain, it is amazing that oxytocin has an effect on it. Moreover, it is suggested that social support, shown specifically in the form of "physical stroking touch" works pretty much the same way an anti-depressant would in preventing the bad stuff stress does to our brains (Walker et al. 2013). Presumably, this is due to oxytocin secretion.
Cuddling Up Your Immune System, Literally.
The thing is, cuddling doesn't just make you happy, it is very likely that it also boosts your immune system so that you don't get as sick often. In a 2016 study (Cohen, 2015), researchers took a poll of 406 healthy adults and asked them two things: one, how much social support they thought they had, and two, how many interactions, conflicts, and hugs they had with other people on a daily basis. And then they put a cold virus up their noses and saw who got sick.
It turns out, not only did the less people who had more social support in their life get sick, frequent hugging specifically showed a buffering effect in which people either didn't get sick, or had significantly less severe illness. Not only that, but the act of hugging also explained 32% of the immune-boosting effect of perceived social support. In other words, not only does frequent hugging independently lessen your chance of getting significantly sick, it also makes you feel supported by people around you (which then further lessens the chance you get really sick.)
Building Body Budget - Literally Charging Your Battery with Cuddles
If you've been around for some time and are familiar with my practice's focus on disability, you've probably heard me talk about the Spoon Theory. Basically, the Spoon Theory is a way to help others understand what a disabled person can and can't do in a given day. Coincidentally, in her book, How Emotions Are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett introduces a very similar concept she calls the "Body Budget."
According to her, our bodies operate a budget similar to a financial one. Everything we do, including eating, drinking, sleeping, and exercising, affects our body budget. And if our body budgets are low, we feel crappy (Yes, like running low on batteries.) Think back to that crappy day with the early morning and the long hours of work. You feel crappy because your body budget is low. Remember that urge to drink sugary caffeine? With Dr. Feldman Barrett's theory in mind, think of that as your brain's attempt at raising your body budget. Which, then allows you the freedom to do something else that you know raises your body budget.
Fortunately for us, Dr. Feldman Barrett also addresses the effect being social has on our body budgets. In her book, she writes, "Your brain is not only regulating your body budget; it’s also helping to regulate other people’s, and other people are helping to regulate you."
In other words, cuddling with your loved one not only increases your body budget and helps you feel less crappy, it probably also helps your loved one feel less crappy too. I'd call that a win-win after a long day away from home.
Neumann I.D.: Involvement of the brain oxytocin system in stress coping: interactions with the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis. Prog. Brain Res. 2002; 139: pp. 147-162
Petrovic P., Kalisch R., Singer T., and Dolan R.J.: Oxytocin attenuates affective evaluations of conditioned faces and amygdala activity. J. Neurosci. 2008; 28: pp. 6607-6615
Drevets W.C.: Neuroimaging abnormalities in the amygdala in mood disorders. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 2003; 985: pp. 420-444
Yoshida M., Takayanagi Y., Inoue K., Kimura T., Young L.J., Onaka T., and Nishimori K.: Evidence that oxytocin exerts anxiolytic effects via oxytocin receptor expressed in serotonergic neurons in mice. J. Neurosci. 2009; 29: pp. 2259-2271
Walker, S.c., and F.p. Mcglone. “The social brain: Neurobiological basis of affiliative behaviours and psychological well-Being.” Neuropeptides, vol. 47, no. 6, 2013, pp. 379–393., doi:10.1016/j.npep.2013.10.008.
Cohen, Sheldon, et al. “Does Hugging Provide Stress-Buffering Social Support? A Study of Susceptibility to Upper Respiratory Infection and Illness.” Psychological Science, vol. 26, no. 2, NIH Public Access, Feb. 2015, pp. 135–47, doi:10.1177/0956797614559284.
Barrett, Lisa Feldman. HOW EMOTIONS ARE MADE: the secret life of the brain. MARINER BOOKS, 2018.