Touching and being touched has a huge impact on our physical and emotional health. It begins in the womb. While a baby is growing inside his mother, the walls of the uterus constantly massage the baby’s skin.
Twins have been observed on ultrasound as early as 14 weeks gestation to be sucking on their twin’s face and fingers. They have also been observed touching and exploring their twin’s face.
Babies need to be touched. They need a touch conveying the message: They are loved. A loving touch helps them develop trust and attachment.
We are touched physically when we reach out with our arms or hands and make contact with another person. I think we also touch with our eyes and facial expressions.
When we are touched gently and lovingly, the nerve endings in our skin stimulate the release of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins. These hormones have the nickname: love hormones or happy hormones.
Dopamine is released when you love someone and feel the love returned. This love message is conveyed by physical touching, eye contact and facial expressions. When we treasure being in someone’s company we are usually touching, hugging, holding hands, being close, making eye contact. All of those touches are feeding love and affection. Babies need those touches; big people do, too.
Serotonin is made in the right anterior cingulate cortex of the brain. Serotonin production is associated with gentle loving touching. It is so powerful for our well-being that people who do not make enough of it or have low levels are prone to depression.
Oxytocin is released from the anterior pituitary gland. It is called the love hormone, the cuddle hormone, the trust hormone, the bonding hormone. The mother’s body produces high levels of oxytocin in the early months after birth to help stimulate the mother to love and cuddle with her baby.
When doing research on oxytocin, I kept finding pictures of people hugging. Not all hugs are the same. There is the side hug, where you place your hand on someone’s shoulder and give them a squeeze. It sends the message: How are you doing, I am here for you if you need me.
Then there is the hand shake hug where you have no body contact with the other person. You just lean in and tap the other person on the back as if to say, nice to see you, but let’s not get too close.
The melt hug is what is you what give to someone after a long day and you are tired. You just kind of drape yourself over the other person.
My favorite hug from people I love is the “huggle.” A “huggle” is when you combine a hug with a snuggle. The “huggle” is the hug which most likely causes the anterior pituitary gland to release the most oxytocin. Babies, children and big people need “huggles” from people they love.
Endorphins help us deal with pain, anxiety and depression. Endorphins are produced by the central nervous system and the pituitary gland. Physical exercise and laughter are two great ways to experience a release of good feeling endorphins.
Getting a baby to laugh makes everyone happy. Just like telling a good joke and making people laugh can spread joy.
The common denominators with all of these hormones are they originate in the brain and are released by a loving touch, glance and acknowledgment from another person of how special you are to them.
Never underestimate how powerful your smile is to another person. Embrace those you treasure with kindness in your face, and hugs that say, you are special to me.
Katie Powers, R.N., is a board-certified lactation consultant and perinatal educator at Manatee Memorial Hospital’s Family BirthPlace. Her column appears every other week in Healthy Living in the Bradenton Herald. Contact her at email@example.com.