You may have heard that cuddling helps alleviate depression, and thought “well sure, everybody feels better after a hug.” We’ll leave aside the part where that’s not really true (and that’s okay), and focus instead on some of thet things science tells us about depression and touch.
Depression (and many other diseases) is Increased by Inflammation
Growing evidence supports the theory that some forms of depression are linked to inflammation in the body. People who are depressed are also more likely to have a whole host of diseases that are linked to inflammation. One in five people with cardiovascular disease also experience depression, and a diabetes diagnosis doubles your odds of facing depression. Nearly three quarters of people with autoimmune diseases like arthritis, lupus, or fibromyalgia also experience depression.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation Fights Inflammation
One way to fight inflammation in the body is through activating the vagus nerve. Researchers have had impressive results in reducing arthritis by activating the vagus nerve with an implanted electrical device. This may be because the vagus nerve activates the parasympathetic nervous system, http://www.touchneurology.com/articles/mechanism-action-vagus-nerve-stimulation-therapy which is the body’s “rest and digest” response – the state we need to be in to heal from the “fight or flight” response brought on by stress. Activating the vagus nerve calms the inflammation reflex in the body. There are lots of ways to do this. Long, deep breaths can activate the vagus nerve (especially if your exhale is longer than your inhale.) Mindfulness and relaxation exercises like meditation and yoga activate the vagus nerve.
Touch Activates the Vagus Nerve
Oh, and cuddling.
Were you wondering when I’d get to that?
Touch sensations start in the Pacinian corpuscles in your skin and travel through the vagus nerve to your brain. The word vagus means “wandering” in Latin, and it describes this nerve in part because the it goes all throughout the body – including to every major organ except the adrenals and thyroid. It’s also key to the release of oxytocin, the cuddle hormone. Higher “vagal tone” is connected to both physical and psychological well-being. Comforting touch has the potential to improve the function of your vagus nerve. This may help to relieve inflammation in the body, and may explain some of the other benefits science has shown that touch creates.
So What Does This Prove?
Nothing. I’m not proving anything here. However, I am suggesting that comforting touch may have health benefits that go beyond just feeling good. This might be a deeper reason that touch helps to ward off depression. Our mood is affected by the chemical makeup of our blood and our body – and what’s happening in our mind and our body are intimately connected. As Neuroscientist Candace Pert, PhD says, “As our feelings change, this mixture of peptides travels through your body and your brain. And they’re literally changing the chemistry of every cell in your body.”
Having the deeply relaxing and nourishing experience a professional cuddle can provide may have a very healing effect on your mind and your body. The science suggests reasons this might be true. If you’re curious, maybe take a chance and check it out for yourself.