“The nerve’s primary role is to slow the nervous system,” says Tiffany Field, Ph.D., the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “As a result, your heart rate goes down, your blood pressure drops, and your stress-hormone levels fall.”
These effects have a huge impact on your health, studies have found. In Field’s research on adults with illnesses like AIDS and cancer, massage therapy was shown to boost participants’ natural killer cells, which attack bacterial, viral, and cancer cells. Because of the calming effect of touch, massages can improve sleep patterns, allowing you to spend more time in the restorative deep stages of sleep, says Field. (Here: More Mind-Body Benefits of Getting a Massage) Other research shows that touch makes the body stronger and more resistant to pain, and it bumps up your levels of oxytocin, which is the hormone responsible for those warm, fuzzy feelings that come with being around those you love. (Yes, that’s why cuddling is so great.)
Touch strengthens your immune system, improves sleep, reduces stress, and ramps up the body’s production of its natural painkillers.
Despite all the healthy upsides, Field says she has discovered that people are actually touching one another less today than ever before.
“We interact more on social media than in person. When you’re out, you’re often listening to music or checking your phone, so there’s less of a chance for contact with strangers or even friends,” she says. That means we’re missing out on all the mind-body advantages.
Fortunately, scientists have discovered there are a multitude of ways to tap into the benefits of touch. These are their four top study-backed strategies.
Person-to-person contact is especially powerful. “Consensual touch from a partner reduces feelings of distress when you’re facing something difficult. It also appears to help the immune system work better and might even trigger the release of oxytocin and your body’s natural painkillers,” says Michael Murphy, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research associate in psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.
To draw on those powerful effects, he suggests looking for more opportunities to be physically close to your loved ones, like hugging friends hello or goodbye or giving your partner a shoulder massage while he’s telling you about his day. Just one or two instances of daily contact can significantly boost your well-being.
Bonus: When you’re touched by someone else—during a massage or a hug, for example—the person who’s reaching out to you gets some of the same perks as you do.
Try an Alternative Massage
“Studies show that self-massage has all the positive effects of regular massage, especially when people do it daily to get a greater dose of touch,” says Field. She recommends carrying a tennis ball around and rolling it up and down your arms a few times a day. That’s all it takes to start to experience a reduction in stress and deeper sleep, her research finds.
Alternative massage and touch-therapy practices are also effective. There are assisted stretching and recovery studios (a therapist manipulates your body to help you stretch sore muscles), and Healing Touch and Reiki (energy therapies in which practitioners place their hands on your body to promote mental and physical healing).
“People are becoming more interested in touch-centered treatments like these because they offer stress relief and can help boost immunity, but they also give a sense of human connection that many people may feel they’re lacking,” says Marina Simovic, a health practitioner who practices stretch therapy and Reiki at Begin to Heal, an alternative therapy practice in New York.
Use a Weighted Blanket
They really can relieve stress and improve your sleep (and they can keep you warm!), says Field. These blankets are 15 to 25 pounds.
“That’s heavy enough to press down on the skin, stimulating your pressure receptors and triggering vagus nerve activity,” says Field. Weighted blankets can be warm, so in the hotter months, try the Gravity Cooling Blanket, which is made from technical fabrics that draw moisture away from the body. Aim for one that’s about 10 percent of your weight.
Do More Yoga
Any activity that involves a firm touch to the skin will stimulate your pressure receptors to activate the vagus nerve, says Field. Yoga is one of the best since it involves pressing into a mat and your own body. But lifting weights, walking, running, and swimming will also stimulate the body’s pressure receptors and let you reap some of the benefits of touch.
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