Hugs Keep You Healthy, According to a New Study

Hugs Keep You Healthy, According to a New Study

Research says a warm embrace can lower stress levels and protect you from disease.

By: Leah Maxwell

Can a hug a day keep the doctor away? It’s possible, according to a research study out of Carnegie Mellon University published inPsychological Science in December 2014. A group of researchers tested whether hugs act as a form of social support, and whether having that support can make people feel less stressed and therefore, be less susceptible to illness.

In the study, 404 adults were given a questionnaire to assess each person’s level of social support, and over the next 14 days, the participants kept track of both the number of hugs they received and the number of interpersonal conflicts they engaged in. Then, the participants were exposed to a virus that causes the common cold and were kept in quarantine so their symptoms could be monitored. The results showed that those who experienced more interpersonal conflict were more likely to suffer stronger symptoms of the illness, and those who reported receiving more social support and more hugs had less severe symptoms.

What’s the science behind it? “Hugs encourage the release of oxytocin, known as the ‘love molecule,’” says Debi Silber, RD, a health, fitness, and personal development expert. “Social support and hugs increase a positive feeling, which in turn ... strengthens our immune system [and] boosts overall health.”

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Silber likens the immune system to an internal army. “When the army is strong, it protects its borders,” she says. She agrees with the research that shows a relationship between a person’s happiness and the body’s ability to fight disease.

As for hugging being a magic elixir, the study didn’t confirm whether the benefit comes from the physical action itself or from the feelings of social support a hug can convey. “Hugging probably signifies a lot of intimate social support, and that type of social support lowers stress levels and boosts immunity,” says Max Wachtel, a psychologist and the author of The One Rule for Boys. “It is probably not that hugging directly boosts a person’s immune system, [but] that people who are huggers are probably fairly outgoing and have a lot of friends and close family members.”

So what does that mean for you? Silber says if you’re looking to strengthen your body’s defenses against disease, surround yourself with people who lower your stress levels and make you feel good. “People who are critical, negative, judgmental, and pessimistic actually suppress our immune system, while those who are supportive, encouraging, positive, and optimistic boost [it],” she says.

Although the secret to health may not be in the hugs themselves, research suggests there’s real value in forming the types of close relationships characterized by hugging.

“If you run out and start hugging everyone you know, it probably won't immediately lower your stress level or keep you from getting sick,” says Wachtel. “But if you start opening yourself up to others more and accepting support from more people, you will eventually see the benefits in a lot of different areas of your life.”


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Whether it’s the physical connection of hugging or the emotional connection behind the act, the bottom line is clear: Surrounding yourself with people who care about you makes you not only happier but healthier as well.

How do your personal relationships help alleviate stress in your life?

Leah Maxwell is a book editor, freelance writer, cereal addict, wife, and mom to two young boys. She has been blogging at A Girl and a Boy since 2003.

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