Human touch may have some healing properties

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affectionate coupleA new study from researchers in Utah finds that a warm touch — the non-sexual, supportive kind — tempers stress and blood pressure, adding to a growing body of research on how emotions affect health.

The study of 34 young married couples ages 20 to 39 by researchers at Brigham Young University in Provo and the University of Utah in Salt Lake City found that massage and other supportive and caring touch lower stress hormones and blood pressure, particularly among men, while also enhancing oxytocin, a hormone thought to calm and counter stress.

The findings will be published in the Oct. 14 issue of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

Brigham Young psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad says the study aimed to learn whether increasing the level of supportive physical contact would improve health-related physical outcomes.

Twenty couples, all married at least six months, participated in a four-week intervention that promoted emotional and physical closeness. They were brought into the lab for training and testing, but the bulk of their actions were at home, including a 30-minute massage (neck, shoulder or forehead) three times a week. Participants wore portable blood pressure monitors for 24 hours to supply a number of readings. They also completed questionnaires about how often they hugged, kissed, held hands or were otherwise affectionate. The 14-couple control group had testing but not the intervention.

"While a fair amount has been done on massage's effects on anxiety and depression and seems to have a positive impact, we don't know that much about specific biological factors," says Gail Ironson, a physician and professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla.

Behavioral neurobiologist C. Sue Carter of the University of Illinois at Chicago says taking the study out of the laboratory is novel because such settings may increase stress.

"The nice thing about this study is that it lets people live in their own world and see effects of their own social interactions without the complexities" of being in a lab, she says.

Generalizing results to older couples will require further research, researchers say. Because medications affect these hormones, Holt-Lunstad says, finding participants not on medication resulted in a young pool.

"If it can help couples who are already young and healthy, it may have a greater effect among older couples or couples with health problems," she says. "Certainly, being more affectionate with your spouse wouldn't hurt."

Original article from USA Today.