While massage is becoming more recognized for its therapeutic benefits, any kind of touch including a simple handshake, congratulatory pat on the back, or a warm-hearted hug has the power to transform you both physically and emotionally. Touch triggers the hypothalamus to produce oxytocin, both released into the bloodstream and stored in the brain. This hormone has a range of physiological functions, including reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, increasing pain tolerance and boosting your mood. There have been a range of studies, each with a different population including infants, cancer patients, mental health patients, the elderly, and pregnant women, all of which point to the same conclusion:
Touch not only makes you feel better, it is vital to our emotional and physical health.
Science-Based Benefits of Touch
Edmond Ross found that physical touch activates the brain’s orbitofrontal cortex, linked to feelings of reward and compassion. His studies show that simple touch triggers the release of oxytocin, known as the “love hormone.” This fosters greater trust between individuals and builds stronger teams of people working together. Touch is the foundation for connection and community.
Studies at the Touch Research Institute found that prenatal massage lowers stress hormones and increases serotonin and dopamine, in pregnant women, reducing the incidence of intra-uterine artery resistance, making it easier to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the baby. This means less premature deliveries, and with healthier birth weights. The women in this study also experienced shorter delivery times, and with fewer complications.
Infants and Touch
And how does loving touch affect the babies? A study carried out by Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Children’s Hospital measured the brain responses of 125 infants and showed that a baby’s earliest experiences of touch have lasting effects on the way the young brains respond to gentle touch. Preemies that spent more time in gentle contact with their parents and healthcare providers, had a stronger brain response to touch than those who were in incubators. Preterm babies who receive positive supportive touch, such as skin-to-skin care by parents, have brain response to touch similar to those babies who experienced an entire pregnancy inside mother’s womb.
Dr. Ruth Feldman carried out a 10-year study which shows the lifetime impacts of physical contact with preterm babies. “In this decade-long study, we showed for the first time that providing maternal-newborn skin-to-skin contact to premature infants in the neonatal period improves children’s functioning 10 years later…” said Dr. Feldman. Compared against standard incubator care, the baby held skin-to-skin against the chest of an adult, showed better cognitive and executive skills in repeated testing from 6 months to 10 years of age, such as more regular sleep patterns, better neuroendocrine response to stress, a mature functioning of the nervous system, and better overall cognitive performance.
Hospice Patients and Touch
Kutner’s research on the effects of touch on 380 hospice patients, half of which received regularly scheduled massage and half of which received a simple untrained touch from hospice volunteers, gave us evidence that while massage is extremely beneficial, untrained touch is also helpful. Both the patients who received massage and those who received untrained touch all reported decrease in pain, and elevated mood and quality of life. The patients who received massage reported those results more immediately than those who received untrained touch, showing us that all is helpful.
Dr. Tiffany Field, Director of Research at the University of Miami Medical School says,”Moderate pressure massage has a huge variety of benefits because it stimulates the vagus nerve, which has branches all over your body, so for example, it slows the heart rate and relaxes your nervous system.” This is huge. The vagus nerve interfaces with our parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs and digestive tract, so can lower blood pressure and reduce digestive or respiratory stress.
Mental Health and Touch
Several studies show that touch therapy can be helpful to people who suffer from mental health issues such as eating disorders, anxiety or depression, or physical pain. Why? Massage can reduce levels of stress hormones like cortisol while simultaneously increasing levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that fights depression and pain. Serotonin is a natural way to reduce physical discomfort and uplift the mood.
Six Facts Why Simple Touch or Professional Massage will Benefit your Well-Being:
- Neuroscientists now know that physical touch is processed by the reward center in the central nervous system, and is thus vital to your emotional health.
- Psychologists explain that simple touch stimulates receptors under the skin that lower cortisol levels, reducing stress and lowering blood pressure.
- The Thymus gland, which regulates your body’s production of white blood cells, strengthening the body’s immune system and helping to maintain optimal health is stimulated through touch.
- The Hippocampus, an area of the brain that is central to memory, is also stimulated.
- Touch can, of course, rub away tension, and when administered by a trained massage therapist, can increase the range of motion and circulation while reducing pain or spasm.
- Finally, all touch including professional massage releases endorphins in the body to reduce pain and elevate mood.
Healing touch has become a widely respected way to prevent and ease health issues. Doctors of all kinds recommend massage to their patients to ease both emotional and physical symptoms of dis-ease.
Raizelah Bayen is a California Certified Massage Therapist, currently employed as the Spa Services Manager at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone, California. She has been practicing massage for over 25 years and teaching T’ui Na, Acupressure, Sports and Pregnancy Massage in massage certification programs for 15 years. Raizelah is an approved CEU Instructor by the National Certification Board of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB), offering training in Freestone, California and on-site training at your massage school or spa. For more information, connect with Raizelah Bayen on LinkedIn.
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