It’s no exaggeration either. Touch is a key component of traditional healing and is being increasingly studied in mainstream medicine, with some trials showing symptom benefits in a number of areas, from asthma and high blood pressure to migraine and childhood diabetes. Other research findings hint that not only does touch lower stress levels, but that it can boost the immune system and halt or slow the progress of disease.
“For people who either benefit from affection or lack it, there are substantial differences,” The Globe and Mail quoted Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Montreal-based Association of Canadians Studies, as saying. He added: “I recommend getting a hug.”
“Touch is an important component of attachment as it creates bonds between two individuals,” says Dr Bhagat. For Malhotra, who describes herself as a friendly, warm, affectionate and demonstrative person, hugging is simply a natural expression of showing that you love and care.
The meeting of two energies is always a rejoicing. It is just like two dancers dancing in rhythm, complementary to each other. But even in the West, where people shake hands…energy, rather than going to the other person, shrinks back. The fear of being sexual, sensuous, of being interested in the other person’s body – is thought to be unspiritual.
The Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine says it has carried out more than 100 studies into touch and found evidence of significant effects, including faster growth in premature babies, reduced pain, decreased autoimmune disease symptoms, lowered glucose levels in children with diabetes, and improved immune systems in people with cancer.
At the Institute for Postgraduate Dental Education in Sweden, a small trial involving 10 patients with fibromyalgia syndrome found that eight benefited from touch therapy. “The results of the pilot study are so encouraging that they warrant an extended study,’” said the researchers.
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital is one of a number of leading health centres in the US that now uses healing touch therapy. “Research has demonstrated that patients who receive healing touch experience accelerated wound healing and relaxation, pain relief and general comfort,” said a spokesman.
According to a Stanford University report, several studies are showing significant benefits in wound healing, pain and anxiety. It says touch therapy may also have positive effects on fracture healing and arthritis. But some studies have failed to find an effect for touch, while others have had mixed results. One review of 11 separate studies found that seven showed a beneficial effect, three showed no effect, and one had a negative effect. Two out of four studies found a significant effect, but the others showed that those who did not get the touch therapy progressed better.
Some believe the power of touch is all down to the placebo effect. “If you touch your partner they feel relaxed, but if someone else touches they may not feel as relaxed,” said Professor Edzard Ernst, a professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter. “That is very much mind over matter. It has nothing to with the sensations of being touched, it is the expectation and the context of the intervention, rather than the specific effect of that intervention.”
While touch is used extensively for stress and anxiety and in palliative care, research is now increasingly focussing on whether it can impede the progress of a number of diseases, including depression and cancer.
At DePauw University in Indiana, Dr Matthew Hertenstein discovered that touch communicates emotions. When people were touched by a stranger they could not see, who had been instructed to try to communicate a particular emotion, they were able to tell the emotional state of the other person with great accuracy.
The findings show that people can communicate several distinct emotions through touch alone, including anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, and sympathy. Accuracy rates ranged from 48 per cent to 83 per cent, comparable with those found in studies of emotions shown in faces and voices. “The evidence indicates that humans can communicate several distinct emotions through touch,” said Dr Hertenstein. “Our study is the first to provide rigorous evidence showing that humans can reliably signal love, gratitude and sympathy with touch. These findings raise the interesting possibility that touch may convey more positive emotions than the face.”
What it suggests, too, is that touch is a much more sophisticated tool that previously thought. It could also explain why different trials on the therapeutic effects of touch can get differing results. It may be that touch works, but that it needs the right person, in the right mood, doing the touching.
How hugs can heal
* Hugging your partner could lower his or her blood pressure.
* Researchers have found that in younger women, the more hugs they get, the lower their blood pressure.
* Researchers at the University of North Carolina who investigated 69 pre-menopausal women showed that those who had the most hugs had a reduced heart rate.
* Exactly what could be responsible is not clear, but the psychiatrists who carried out the work also found that blood levels of the hormone oxytocin were much higher in the women who were hugged the most.
* Other research finds that oxytocin is released during social contact and that it is associated with social bonding, while a study at Ohio State University shows that when it is put into wounds in animals, the injuries heal much more quickly.
* Work at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences suggests that oxytocin can induce anti-stress-like effects, including reduction in blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol: “It increases pain thresholds and stimulates various types of positive social interaction, and it promotes growth and healing. Oxytocin can be released by various types of non-noxious sensory stimulation, for example by touch and warmth,” they say.
April McCarthy is a community journalist playing an active role reporting and analyzing world events to advance our health and eco-friendly initiatives.