Why human touch is good for our health

Touch has known benefits for our physical and mental wellbeing. (Getty Images)

The coronavirus lockdown means millions who live alone may not have experienced human touch for months.

From the moment we arrive in the world, skin-to-skin contact is important, with newborns being placed on their mother’s chest.

Read more: A hug from a parent ‘the best way to reassure children’

This seemingly simple act helps regulate the baby’s heart beat, stimulates digestion and has even been linked to a shorter hospital stay in the neonatal unit.

Touch becomes no less important as we grow, with many isolating loved ones declaring, “I can’t wait to hug you again”.

Newborns are placed on their mother's chest after birth. (Getty Images)

Human touch is known to boost us emotionally.

“In psychological terms, attachment is the emotional bond we form with our primary caregivers as infants,” Dr Meg Arroll, chartered psychologist for Healthspan, told Yahoo UK.

“This bond, or lack therefore, has a profound effect on our psychological functioning throughout life.”

Influential, if somewhat cruel, animal research demonstrated the importance of touch decades ago.

“Studies in the 1950s and 1960s looked at the effects of maternal deprivation in rhesus monkeys and demonstrated that after separation from their real mothers, the infant monkeys spent more time with a wire ‘mother’ covered in soft terry cloth, even though there was no food source on this surrogate, compared to a wire-only mother with a feed bottle,” said Dr Arroll.

Read more: ‘Cuddle curtain’ lets children hug their grandparents in lockdown

Touch is known to aid bonding through the release of the “love hormone” oxytocin.

“Oxytocin helps us to bond with others, boosts mood, increases feelings of trust and reduces stress,” said Dr Arroll.

“Therefore, those who live alone and in isolation at the moment, and report how they haven't been touched in months, could indeed experience low mood and anxiety.”

While it may sound farfetched, Dr Tara Swart told Get The Gloss when the nerve endings in our skin miss out on “interaction” it triggers a “cascade of neural pathways akin to unrequited love”.

The benefits of touch may extend far beyond maintaining good mental health.

“Psychical touch is associated with strengthening our immune systems [and] lowering blood pressure,” psychologist Jennifer Ellen Smith told Yahoo UK.

Touch is said to simulate sensors beneath that skin that connect to the vagus nerve in the brain.

The vagus nerve regulates everything from the nervous system and heart rate to blood pressure and hormone production.

Speaking of hormones, oxytocin is not the only one influenced by touch.

Human contact is said to lower the stress-hormone cortisol, which in turn regulates the immune system.

Read more: Could hugs and handshakes die out?

While it is no substitute for human interaction, “embracing ourselves” may keep things ticking over until the real thing comes along.

“Your brain can’t distinguish between someone else’s touch and your own touch,” said Smith.

“So if you’ve been in isolation and are feeling down or stressed you can release a host of feel-good hormones by hugging yourself for 20 seconds every day to give yourself a well needed boost.”

Stroking pets and a barefoot stroll in the grass may have similar benefits.

“Barefoot walking exposes the many nerve endings on the bottom of our feet to different textures which is mentally stimulating,” said Dr Swart.