The Health Benefits of Social Contact
Disclaimer: Let me start by saying that any encouragement for social contact you might get from reading this article should take into consideration your current circumstances and your need to stay safe. There are suggestions at the end of this article for alternatives to the way you normally interact with friends and family.
Much has been learned in the past 40-50 years about the health benefits of physical touch and, on the flipside, the detrimental effects of lack of physical contact on physical and psychological wellbeing. There are entire entities devoted to studying the health effects of touch, such as the Touch Institute at the University of Miami’s School of Medicine.
Now, at a time when we probably need it more than ever, we are being told to keep our distance. In fact, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a prominent member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said in a recent Wall Stress Journal podcast that we should never shake hands again.
Even before coronavirus, our society was becoming less touchy-feely – mostly because of a focus on social media and other electronic interactions. Remember a few months ago when you could sit in a public place – restaurant or airport – and observe human behavior?
People fiddled with their phones or tablets instead of talking or physically interacting. Fast forward to today. People are sick of their electronic communications and want more direct human contact. As Joni Mitchell sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone…”
So, is the pendulum swinging back the other way? Will we be seeking more direct human connection? Maybe – once we are out of quarantine. Does physical touch do more than make us feel good? Let’s look at some of the health benefits of physical interaction.
Physical touch benefits immunity
Physical touch has been shown to actually boost immunity. Stress has a negative effect on immunity and increases your chances of getting sick. One study of 404 healthy adults found that social support and hugging decreased the stress-induced tendency to catch a cold.1
Lung function tends to diminish with age. A study of 518 men and 629 women (ages 70-79) found that the more different social roles a person had (being married, being a grandmother, being a friend, etc.) the better their lung function (measured by peak expiratory flow).2 This has disturbing ramifications for the health of our elderly populations, many of whom are currently separated from family and friends.
Benefits for cardiovascular health
Just the simple act of holding hands with another person stimulates touch receptors in the hands that can lower heart rate. Positive physical contact can have a beneficial effect on decreasing stress, which in turn can lower blood pressure. A study in women of childbearing age found that a physical interaction with their partner ending with a hug resulted in increased secretion of the feel-good hormone oxytocin, along with a decrease in blood pressure.3
And, if you’re quarantining with a pet but not with other humans, don’t despair because studies show interactions with dogs, cats, and other pets provide similar health benefits. One study looked at the effect of interacting with a dog on a person’s blood pressure and pulse rate.
Sixty undergraduate students who were either neutral or positive about dogs interacted with them while their blood pressure and pulse were being monitored. Petting the dog had the most significant effect on lowering blood pressure and pulse rate, followed by just talking to the dog; blood pressure and pulse rate were highest when talking to the human running the experiment.4
Effect of touch on weight
We know that high cortisol levels, which can be brought on by stress, are associated with increased sugar craving and a tendency to gain weight. So, positive touch, which can lower cortisol, can also have a beneficial effect on body weight. But there’s another way cuddling might help you lose weight.
As mentioned, positive touch also contributes to release of the feel-good hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is also secreted after you’ve had a meal, signaling that you’re full; thus, the mere act of cuddling can make you feel full.5
Physical touch and mood
Positive physical touch can also have an effect on mood. It can decrease anxiety and stress-related hormones like cortisol. And in addition to the hormone, oxytocin, physical touch increases other feel-good hormones, including dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins.
Alternatives to touching
If you find yourself in a position during the pandemic where you aren’t getting the kind of human touch you crave, are used to, or would desire, then what alternatives might have similar benefits for your health and wellbeing?
As mentioned above, interacting with a pet could derive as much benefit as interacting with a person. In the study cited above, the participants had lower blood pressure when interacting with a dog than they did when interacting with the person administering the study (who was not a close friend or family member).
But even non-physical social contact that satisfies physical distancing guidelines can provide benefit – video chatting with friends and family can result in release of oxytocin. And if you’re using video conferencing for work-related meetings, then be sure to include time for personal conversation.
It also turns out that having a phone conversation or some other audio chat can be just as beneficial as a video chat – but not texting or emailing. One study looked at female children who had a stressful event that increased their cortisol levels.
Those who contacted their mothers in person or by phone experienced a release of oxytocin and a decrease in cortisol. However, the girls who texted their mothers experienced no release of oxytocin and had the same cortisol levels as the girls who didn’t contact a parent.6
Other group video interactions can also provide benefit – such as group yoga or dance sessions. Dance is a way that many people communicate non-verbally and often without touching. Daybreak Live is one website that offers live video dance parties – or get some friends together and plan one on Skype or Zoom.
The lengths people will go to hug a loved one
Some individuals have figured out how to actually touch their at-risk loved ones safely – via plastic “hug blankets” and so forth. Here are several examples showing the lengths people will go to in order to hug their loved ones – including this hug curtain in Riverside, California, this hug-time device in Illinois, and this hug blanket in Arkansas. Then there’s the story of the Virginia woman who put on a sterilized hippopotamus suit so she could hug her mom in a senior living facility. And hugging isn’t just human nature as illustrated by Louie and Mori.
Have you done something different to interact with a loved one? Then share it with us on Social. Tag @Thorne Research on Instagram and use the hashtag #onlyThorne to be featured on our page.
- Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D, Turner R, Doyle W. Does hugging provide stress-buffering social support? A study of susceptibility to upper respiratory infection and illness. Psychol Sci 2015;26(2):135-147.
- Crittenden C, Pressman S, Cohen S, et al. Social integration and pulmonary function in the elderly. Health Psychol 2014;33(6):535-543.
- Light K, Grewen K, Amico J. More frequent partner hugs and higher oxytocin levels are linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate in premenopausal women. Biol Psychol 2005;69(1):5-21.
- Vormbrock J, Grossberg J. Cardiovascular effects of human pet-dog interactions. J Behav Med 1988;11(5):509-517.
- Can you hug and kiss your way to better health? Research says yes. https://www.pennmedicine.org/updates/blogs/health-and-wellness/2018/february/affection [accessed May 21, 2020]
- Selzter L, Prososki A, Ziegler T, Pollack S. Instant messages versus speech: hormones and why we still need to hear each other. Evol Hum Behav 2012;33(1):42-45.
An important note: No dietary supplement can diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, including COVID-19. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is especially important to understand that no dietary supplement, no diet, and no lifestyle modifications – other than the recommended social distancing and hygiene practices – can prevent you from being infected with the COVID-19 virus. No current research supports the use of any dietary supplement to protect you from being infected with the COVID-19 virus.