Anti-stress benefits of holding hands

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cuddle Some turn to yoga or t'ai chi, others swear by red wine. No stone has been left unturned in the age-old pursuit of a long and healthy life. But now medical researchers have concluded that the secret of longevity may lie in nothing more outlandish than what comes naturally to mothers the world over.

A good old-fashioned cuddle, say the scientists, can reduce heart disease, cut down stress and promote longevity. The researchers even advise nervous public speakers to indulge in a bit of hugging before they go on stage to face their audience.

At the heart of it is a so-called "cuddle hormone", oxytocin, a chemical associated with a range of health benefits, which shows a marked increase in the blood supply after just 10 minutes of warm, supportive touching. The finding might explain why married couples enjoy better health than singletons.

Some studies have suggested that divorce, bereavement and social isolation damage health. But what it is about marriage that is protective, and the mechanisms involved, have been unclear.

However, the scientists also found that the quality of the hug is crucial - and, for example, the celebrity embrace performed in the glare of flashlights might not count. Instead the cuddle is at its strongest in a warm, supportive relationship.

Volunteer partners taking part in the experiment were first put into separate rooms. Their blood pressure and levels of oxytocin and cortisol, the stress hormone, were tested.

Then they were seated on a loveseat in a quiet room and told to sit close together, holding hands. They watched a five-minute segment of a romantic video, followed by two minutes talking about a time when they felt close as a couple. At the end of the session, partners stood for a half-minute hug.

"Our findings suggest that when the relationship is supportive and strong, time spent with the partner may be beneficial by reducing blood pressure and protecting against future heart disease," said the researchers, whose findings appear in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine this week. "These are the first findings in humans linking oxytocin to the strength of the partner relationship, and it was seen in both men and women.''

The latest research suggests that oxytocin is the chemical that gives marriage its beneficial effect. Its role is to calm and destress, and it is thought that touch triggers the body into producing the hormone. Touch stimulates production of oxytocin which, in turn, promotes a desire to touch and be touched.

In another study, the same researchers from the University of North Carolina told couples they would have to give speeches. Before they did so, 100 of the couples sat holding hands for a short time, then they embraced for 20 seconds. Another group of couples rested quietly and were separated from their partners. During their speeches, heart rates and blood pressure rose twice as high in the second group compared to the hand-holders.

[Article from 'The Independent,' By Roger Dobson Published: 07 August 2005]

See also: Sex may keep stress at bay

More frequent partner hugs and higher oxytocin levels are linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate in premenopausal women (medical abstract)