Hug Therapy for Immune Health
Many new perspectives on health have come to light in recent years. The concept of hug therapy has recently been brought to the forefront through a new Carnegie Mellon University study. The study suggests that receiving consistent hugs can ease stress and help to combat the immunological effects of stress. This makes hug therapy potentially beneficial for those who suffer conditions caused by chronic stress like Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS).
Lack of Social Support and Illness
One of the best ways to examine the effects of social support on sicknesses and recovery, and how this relates to hug therapy, is to look at how the natural stress response system works.
The system through which the body responds to stress is called the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response. This response starts with the first signals in the brain and causes the hormonal and eventually physical responses associated with stress. This system can also have an effect on the immunological system of the body. In other words, being stressed can make you more susceptible to infection and illness.
This increased risk for sickness and infection is mainly due to the internal inflammation and poor nutrient absorption associated with stress. Some of the ways to manage this stress involve enlisting social support.
The study by Carnegie Mellon University took 404 healthy adults and studied the level of interpersonal conflicts in their lives and how many hugs the participants got during a 14 day period. Then the participants were exposed to a common cold virus and spent time in a quarantined environment where their physical conditions were monitored.
The study found that there was a reduced risk of infection for those individuals who perceived social support when they experienced conflicts. The protective effect of the social support had approximately a 30% correlation with the hug therapy a person experienced. Further, there was no tie between having interpersonal conflicts and benefiting from the positive effects of hugs. This means that even if there were several conflicts that an individual was experiencing, hug therapy still reduced the risk of illness and infection.
This is important because, in the past, the importance of social support has not been adequately considered in the medical community. It can have major effects.
Hug Therapy and Stress Recovery
A dysregulated NEM Stress Response can have numerous negative effects on the body, not the least of which is a weakened immune system. There is no way to eliminate stress in our lives altogether, but there are a few factors that should be considered to lessen its negative effects.
During the NEM Stress Response, the adrenal glands release a hormone called cortisol that has several effects on the body. Cortisol increases blood sugar, blood cholesterol, and heart rate. It also slows nutrient uptake and suppresses the immune system. Because of this, when someone experiences ongoing stress and cortisol, they often develop a condition known adrenal fatigue, or AFS, where they can no longer properly respond to stress.
For those who suffer from AFS as a result of stress, hug therapy can actually help speed their recovery. This is because the neuroaffect circuit of the NEM Stress Response is more balanced in people who receive affection. The neuroaffect circuit comprises the initial triggers in the brain that start many other aspects of the body’s stress response. It is also strongly associated with emotional stress. This emotional stress can be lessened when someone feels social support in a multitude of ways including hug therapy.
In other words, having high levels of stress makes you more susceptible to infection and illness, but experiencing social support helps reduce stress, and reduces risk of infection and illness in turn. It can also improve AFS due to reducing the burden placed on the adrenal glands.
However, though hug therapy does help reduce infection and lower stress levels, it is best used as part of an overall plan to improve your health, and it’s not necessarily best for everyone. Some individuals have mental health issues that are best addressed by a professional. These mental health issues could also be behind abnormally high levels of stress that lead to AFS. If you have any concerns as to whether or not a particular situation or affliction is causing you to experience AFS of high levels of stress, please contact a healthcare professional. Mental health issues are not to be taken lightly, and it’s very important to get a second or third opinion if you have any questions.
Social Support and AFS
AFS comes with a host of issues, from a weakened immune system to fatigue, exhaustion, and brain fog. It’s important to do what you can to help your body recover. Social support is one of the lesser known ways to reinforce AFS recovery.
Shelden Cohen, the leader of the Carnegie Mellon study, said the results of his study suggest “that being hugged by a trusted person may act as an effective means of conveying support and that increasing the frequency of hugs might be an effective means of reducing the deleterious effects of stress…The apparent protective effect of hugs may be attributable to the physical contact itself or to hugging being a behavioral indicator of support and intimacy… Either way, those who receive more hugs are somewhat more protected from infection.”
What can be taken from this is that there is a net positive effect on health when people have support from the people who are close to them. This can be both exciting and worrying information. There are those among us who have difficulty finding support from those around us. This can be especially true as people are more wrapped up in their lives and have less time for each other.
Isolation can be a contributing factor for those who are suffering from AFS. If you have or suspect AFS and are looking for ways to improve your health, taking a look at your social interactions could be a good idea. Try being a bit more social and reaching out to your peers. Through different methods of stress reduction, including hug therapy, you can lower several of your risk factors for ill health.
It can be difficult for those who are experiencing AFS to get out, socialize, or reach out to those around them. Many experience continual exhaustion and other health problems that make socializing quite an obstacle. However, taking small steps to reinforce your overall social support structures, like calling an old friend or going to a charity event, can help improve the health of your body as well as your mind.
Infection, Stress, and Recovery
There are clear links between having high levels of stress and an increased likelihood of developing sickness. Other types of chronic inflammation and infection can also develop in a person who is continually stressed. These are some more noteworthy links between stress and infection that should be considered.
AFS can cause cortisol levels to fluctuate wildly and become out of balance, leaving the body without the energy to function properly. These episodic cortisol spikes create exhaustion and brain fog, and they leave the body unable to fight off infections that would normally be easy to deal with. This is why many people with AFS also have other chronic health issues. These, in turn, can lead to emotional issues that increase social disconnection that in turn increase infection. This brings us to how infection, stress, and emotional support are cyclical.
A complete mind-body approach to health is the best way to help you recover from anything, whether it’s AFS or another health problem. This approach helps break the cyclical nature of illness.
Social support, like hug therapy, has a positive effect on health, but isolation has a weakening effect. This weakening effect leads to sickness, which further weakens the body and can cause you to avoid people.
To break the cycle, you have to tackle your health issues from as many angles as possible. To avoid illness, you have to take care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. As the Carnegie Mellon study shows, these aspects of health are interrelated. Improving your social well-being also helps reduce your stress levels, which reduces cortisol variability and therefore strengthens the immune system. This reduces your risk of infection.
There are many causes of infection and sickness, so it is difficult to ascertain exactly where they come from. It is hard to determine what aspect of your life is the biggest contributor to a given illness. For this reason, it’s necessary to address the things that you can act on. This includes stress reduction and social connection, or hug therapy. These things are proven to benefit overall health, but they aren’t the only solutions.
Although there will never be a silver bullet to solve all your problems, many small improvements can add up to making a big difference. Taking care of adrenal fatigue and doing what you can to reduce your stress is a good idea, and there is a high likelihood that they are the same things.
As with any health information, consider what makes sense for you and your unique situation. Though the goals may be the same, there are circumstances where the approach to those goals needs to be tempered for the individual.
© Copyright 2017 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
Dr. Lam’s Key Question
Is hug therapy a solution to complete AFS recovery?
Although hug therapy can certainly help you in your journey to recover from AFS, there is no single solution. The best way to recover from AFS is to look at all aspects of your life including your social support systems, and your physical, mental, and emotional health.