Why Physical Touch Matters For Your Health And Immunity

Written by Reshma Pathare on Sat, 02 December 2023


We all positively connect to others through physical contact. Whether it is an embrace, a hug, or a shoulder pat, physical touch plays an important role in our efforts to show consideration and affection to our friends and family.

Why is physical touch important?

Infants cling, suckle, and rest on their caregivers for better emotional, mental, and physical health. The senses of touch and hearing are the first to develop, so infants learn a great deal about communication through these senses when they are in the early months of their lives. The effects of gentle maternal cuddling on premature babies have been linked to better weight gain and improved heart rate regulation.

Throughout our lives, touch remains a vital component of our social and emotional development. Skin is the largest organ in our bodies, and it transmits both good and bad sensations to the brain. When a person is hugged or experiences positive touch, the brain releases a hormone that makes us feel good and increases positivity. Alternatively, a lack of physical contact can result in stress, anxiety, and depression. When you are stressed, your body releases a hormone called cortisol. Too much of it can cause your heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and breathing rate to spike, affecting your immune system and digestion.

The science of touch

Touch signals are communicated to our sensory neurons by our skin. In the outermost layer of the skin, keratinocyte cells proliferate in billions. Sensory nerves are activated by keratinocytes, and the brain receives touch sensations as a result. By hugging or touching someone, our brain releases oxytocin, a neuropeptide that makes us feel good, increases feelings of trust and emotional connection, and soothes fear and anxiety. For this reason, oxytocin is affectionately known as the "cuddle hormone".

How does touch starvation affect your immunity?

When physical contact is limited or completely absent, people suffer from touch starvation or touch deprivation. Touch starvation increases stress, anxiety, and depression levels due to the physiological changes it triggers. As a result of chronic stress, our bodies release the hormone cortisol, which activates the flight-or-fight response. Stress, depression, or isolation can even cause people to experience sleep problems. Conditions like heart attacks, diabetes, hypertension, and asthma can all be affected by anxiety, depression, or mental health issues. The prolonged absence of positive physical touch can even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Touch starvation and senior citizens

Touch triggers a variety of physiological, emotional, and behavioural responses. Our need for physical contact might vary as we age, however, the positive feelings touch evokes don't. Seniors receive the least physical contact of all age groups. When spending time with someone who is elderly, keep this in mind. Regardless of age, we all appreciate being held, having our shoulders rubbed, or being hugged. This affectionate feeling can make a huge difference in a senior's life.

How to identify if you are touch starved?

Touch starvation cannot be diagnosed definitively. The symptoms can also include feeling depressed, lonely, and deprived of affection. Anxiety, depression, and stress may also accompany the symptoms. A variety of negative physiological effects may result from this.

Touch starvation: what you can do.

Even when you are unable to physically interact with others, you can combat the effects of touch starvation:

  • Join an online class or exercise program: Human touch is not fully replaced by video calls, but they allow us to see and hear what others are saying. This may help ease some touch starvation symptoms. You can interact in a friendly environment while taking yoga or workout classes online, creating a less lonely environment.
  • Music and movement: Activities like these can boost your oxytocin levels by improving your mood, focus, and motivation.
  • Sleep with a body pillow: A body pillow mimics the feeling of cuddling and hugging another person. By sleeping with one, you can reduce stress and release oxytocin.
  • Having pets as companions. Playing with your pet, even though they aren't humans, can help you relax. It may alleviate certain symptoms of touch deprivation since it's a form of interaction. Dog owners who caress their pets experience a peak in oxytocin levels.
  • Schedule a massage: Besides its therapeutic effects for specific ailments, massage can produce feelings of care, comfort, and connection for some people. This makes it a good option for those who seek physical contact.

In addition to subconsciously simulating touch, you may also do things such as take long showers or baths, wrap up in blankets, or even hold on to a pet. Physical touch is lacking for many of us at the moment, and considering the science, it's important to decrease the negative feelings caused by isolation.


Reshma Pathare

Reshma Kulkarni-Pathare has been a self-employed media professional since 1999. Starting off as a Freelance Journalist for Times of India Thane Plus, Reshma went onto write for more than 45 national and international publications including Times of India, New Woman, Femina, Indian Express, The Hindu, BBC Good Homes and many more. While her forte has been lifestyle writing, she is equally proficient in writing health articles. Her health articles have been published in Health International (Dubai), New Woman, Femina, and Mother & Baby.

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Current Version

Dec, 02 2023

Written By

Reshma Pathare