Whether it's a squeeze of the hand, a big bear hug, a kneading massage, even a bedroom romp, touch is shaping up to be the ultimate mind-body medicine.
From lowering blood pressure and heart rate to increasing immune function and relieving pain, getting touched or doing some touching makes you healthier -- not to mention happier and less anxious.
How do you tap into these body-boosting benefits? Let us count the ways.
Get A Rubdown
Anyone who's ever gotten a massage -- even a quickie at a mall kiosk -- knows that it helps you unwind. That's not just a mental sensation: Getting massaged causes muscles to unclench, a racing heart rate to slow, heightened blood pressure to fall, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol to drop. In that relaxed state, your body is able to regroup and recharge. One happy result: a more robust immune system.
"Cortisol suppresses the immune response," explains Roberta Lee, M.D., vice chair of the Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. "Anything that increases the relaxation response triggers the restoration of your immune response."
Recently, researchers measured immune function in healthy adults who got either a 45-minute Swedish massage or 45 minutes of lighter touch. The massaged group had substantially more white blood cells -- including natural killer cells, which help the body fight viruses and other pathogens -- and fewer types of inflammatory cytokines associated with autoimmune diseases.
It's too soon to know whether regular massages will, say, keep you from catching a cold, but "it's not an unreasonable speculation," notes lead study author Mark Rapaport, M.D., chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.
Hug It Out
The act of embracing floods our bodies with oxytocin, a "bonding hormone" that makes people feel secure and trusting toward each other, lowers cortisol levels, and reduces stress. Women who get more hugs from their partners have higher levels of oxytocin and lower blood pressure and heart rates, according to research done at the University of North Carolina.
But a hug from anyone you're close to works, too. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison tested that when they analyzed stress levels among volunteers giving a presentation. Afterward, participants who got hugs from their moms saw decreases in cortisol levels an hour after the presentation.
Hold Hands With Your Honey
Twining your fingers together with your one-and-only is enormously calming. James Coan, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, discovered this when he administered functional MRIs to 16 married women while telling them they might experience a mild shock.
The resulting anxiety caused the images of their brain activity to light up like Christmas trees. But when the women held hands with one of the experimenters, that stress response subsided -- and when they held hands with their husbands, it really quieted down. "There was a qualitative shift in the number of regions in the brain that just weren't reacting anymore to the threat cue," Coan says.
Even more intriguing: When you're in a happy relationship, clasping hands reduces stress-related activity in a brain area called the hypothalamus -- which lowers the levels of cortisol coursing through your system -- as well as in the part of the brain that registers pain, which actually helps keep you from feeling it as much.
No surprise -- after all, lovemaking involves total-body contact. All that skin-to-skin stroking (not to mention orgasm!) floods us with oxytocin and feel-good endorphins that do wondrous things for our emotional well-being.
Regular sex also does the physical body good, possibly even preventing us from getting sick as often. People who had sex once or twice a week had 30 percent more infection-fighting immunoglobulin A (IgA) in their saliva than those who didn't do the deed as often, according to a study done at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
Not partnered up? Solo sex counts, too: At least one study links masturbation with lower risk of depression.
Cuddle Up With Your Pet
If you're a pet owner, you've no doubt noticed you're less tense when scratching your animal behind the ears. In fact, research shows that people's blood pressure drops when they pet dogs, particularly if it's a dog they know and love. Dog petting has also been shown to improve immune function and ease pain, or at least the perception of it.
"You're focusing on the animal, not on you, so your mind isn't able to ruminate about the pain," explains Brad Lichtenstein, a naturopathic physician and assistant professor in the counseling and health psychology department at Bastyr University in Seattle. (Experts say snuggling with any furry pet should be just as soothing.)
So don't resist when your pet curls up with you -- spending quality time together may be just what the doctor ordered.