By Kelly Chapman, Owner of Meredith Whole Living Center
From the early days of research in Romanian orphanages during the 1990’s, to ongoing research today, the physical and mental health benefits of therapeutic touch on human beings and other primates have proven to be profound. The importance of receiving therapeutic touch begins at birth, with babies receiving it gaining more weight and experiencing fewer illnesses. Its health benefits continue throughout the life cycle, including during dementia care later in life, and can be accomplished in many ways.
One of the main ways therapeutic touch is able to affect overall health is through its impact on the vagus nerve, one of the longest and most important nerves in the body. When stimulated by therapeutic touch, results include a decrease in heart rate, lower blood pressure, and a decrease in stress hormone levels, which has a positive impact on immune function. Stimulation of the vagus nerve also increases serotonin levels, which contributes to a natural decline in depression and pain.
Perhaps most fascinatingly, Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, shared findings that the therapeutic touch practice of massage therapy actually increases natural killer cells in the body that are responsible for attacking bacterial, viral and cancer cells. When combined with the other known health benefits of massage and other forms of therapeutic touch, such as a decrease in pain, lower indicence of depression, and improved sleep quality, a powerful argument for integrating more touch into our daily lives emerges. Unfortunately, researchers in this field are finding that we’re actually experiencing less natural touch in our lives, even as we learn more about its benefits.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic created additional barriers for many people to physically interact with others, researchers were already studying the ways in which social norms and technology were decreasing the quality and quantity of physical touch in our day to day lives. For instance, when analyzing physical interactions at airports in 2018, Field noted that regardless of relationship, people were spending much less time hugging and physically interacting with each other than they would have at earlier times in history, and were instead interacting primarily with technology devices. This decrease in physical interaction is also observed elsewhere in American society, including classroom settings, where physical touch is discouraged. Notably, when compared with their peers in cultures that encourage more healthy physical interaction, American students exhibit more aggression toward one another. This aggressive response to limiting touch has also been observed in monkeys in research settings.
The good news is there is a wide variety of ways to receive the health benefits of therapeutic touch, regardless of your current circumstances and comfort level with interactions with others. For some, it may be easy to get this need met through hugging and other forms of physical comfort such as back rubs from trusted loved ones. For others, therapeutic services such as massage therapy or massage components to manicures, pedicures and facials are a preferred avenue. And for others, practicing yoga and other activities that create opportunities for pressure to be applied throughout the body can also stimulate the vagus nerve and produce the physiological and psychologocal benefits of touch. Even activities as mundane as walking, due to the pressure applied to the soles of the feet, has been shown to produce positive results. Regardless of your personal circumstances, and given the range of health benefits that touch can give us, it's worth exploring and prioritizing ways to increase it in your life.