The power of a hug

hug illustrationA hug is wonderful when you feel sad, stressed, tired and even when you feel good.

I love what the Free Hugs people do when they stand in a city centre holding a ‘Free Hugs’ sign. Their hugs produce human connection, vulnerability, smiles, laughter, positive emotion, and even sometimes tears, especially if it’s the first hug a person who has been suffering has experienced in a long while.

Hugs are also good for the heart. They increase our levels of the hormone ‘oxytocin’, which as well as being known for its role in trust, childbirth, and breastfeeding, is also a powerful ‘cardioprotective’ hormone. This basically means it helps protect the cardiovascular system.

From what? You might ask. From the negative side-effects of poor dietary and lifestyle choices and also from mental and emotional stress.

Oxytocin works by producing nitric oxide in our arteries, which then widens (dilates) our arteries. Nitric oxide helps our arteries stay flexible and also helps reduce blood pressure.

So, ultimately, hugs are cardioprotective too. And I’d say so for more than simply their oxytocin-and-therefore-nitric-oxide-inducing power, but because they make us feel relaxed, cared for, even loved. Hugs are medicine for the soul.

I remember crying in front of my mum and dad when I found out our beloved dog, Oscar, had osteosarcoma and was unlikely to live beyond a few months. Mum hugged me and I melted, collapsed in her arms. I felt like a child again, being loved by and tended to by my mum.

I think we have that memory of being tended to by our parents as children, where we were upset or in pain and we knew that ‘everything is going to be OK’, ‘the pain will go soon’, or ‘it’s OK, Mum (or Dad) will fix it’. It’s a memory held deep in the unconscious but whose emotions are released in our adult lives when we receive a hug.

So hugs are medicine for the heart and they are medicine for the soul. If we could bottle hugs, we would take our daily dose without question.

Here’s the thing, you can have a daily dose. You don’t need to wait to be hugged. You can hug others.

As a typical Scottish male (OK, I’m not really able to speak for my entire nation but I’ll make a generalisation based on my 45-year-old observations), hugging didn’t come naturally to me. To be honest, I felt like a sissy if someone hugged me. I’d do the whole, awkward, chest-held-back-not sure-about-touching thing, followed by a little pat on the back, secretly hoping that the hug would end soon.

But I learned to enjoy hugs. I think it happened when I was in my late 20’s and Mum (again to the rescue) looked after me for a week while I suffered a bout of depression. It was the first time in my adult life I opened up to someone. I think something shifted in me then, a willingness to open up to others that I’d not showed before. I then became an initiator of hugs.

Even in the bar on a Thursday night after work (that was our standard weekly visit), I’d say goodbye to my friends at the end of the night with a hug. At first, some of them were a little awkward but soon got the hang of it too. It came natural to some others. But within a month or two, a hug was the standard goodbye for us after a few drinks in the bar.

So I’d add that hugs are also contagious. As we hug others, we share a connection. It opens us a little. It feels good. And that makes it contagious.

So given the medicine that hugs carry, that they are free, and contagious (in a good way), it might be a good idea to see if you can add a few more hugs to your day.

You’d be doing yourself a favour, but each time you hug you also deliver a gentle dose of medicine to the heart and soul of another person too.

And that is the power of a hug.

A hug a day … boosts your immune system

hug illustrationI’ve written about hugs in some past blogs and books, in particular about how they produce the hormone oxytocin, which is good for the heart. I coined the term, ‘A hug a day keeps the cardiologist away’. I love hugs so I couldn’t wait to share some exciting new research about how they can protect you from the common cold.

The research was led by Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University. It was a simple study. His team asked 404 people how many hugs they received over a two-week period before exposing them to the virus that causes the common cold and monitoring them in quarantine.

It turned out that those who had the most hugs had lowest severity of cold symptoms.

There was a little more to the study. As well as hugs they monitored how much social support each person received. Those who felt most supported in their lives and relationships were most protected from the cold. Hugs accounted for a third of the overall effect.

It’s well known in science that when we’re involved in ongoing personal conflicts with people we’re less able to fight off colds and other infections. Have you noticed that? It’s presumed that the stress involved in the conflict can suppress the immune system. So the hug study was looking at the opposite effect – emotional, social support; i.e. support and closeness instead of conflict and distance. While conflicts suppress the immune system, the study implied that hugs boost it. Generally speaking, you can think of it as emotional support and closeness is good for us while consistent conflict and emotional distance isn’t so much.

I love this kind of research. It motivates me to keep spreading the word that we should be nice to one another, help each other, and of course hug each other. Hugs are easy to do. You just, well, give someone a hug. That’s it. Who would have imagined it can be so good for health.

I’ve previously written about the effects of hugs on the heart (in ‘Why Kindness is Good for You‘). Research has shown that hugs produce the hormone oxytocin, which is cardioprotective. That means it protects the heart. Oxytocin, and therefore hugs, reduces blood pressure and helps sweep arteries clear of free radicals and inflammation.

So this new research compliments the overall health-giving effect of hugs. Not only are they good for the heart, they are also good for the immune system.

So, I guess, we might as well make sure we give out a few hugs today, and of course welcome those offered to us too.

Why Children Need Love to Grow

Little girl smilingIt’s pretty obvious that babies need love, but did you know that their actual physical and biological growth requires love?

Research shows that the early growth of at least one part of the brain (the orbitofrontal cortex – behind the orbits of the eyes) is almost wholly dependent upon the environment an infant is born into? The first 24 months is crucial in that it is during this time the building and shaping of this part of the brain sets the child up for life.

If an infant is born into an environment lacking in love, emotional warmth, and responsiveness, the growth of its brain is hugely affected.

But if an environment changes, the brain changes too. Research for the Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP) has tracked the growth and development of children adopted internationally or fostered from Romanian Orphanages and indeed shown that if a child in such an institution is adopted or fostered within its first 2 years of life, growth and development return to normal. In fact, one of the most encouraging pieces of research related to the project contains, in the title, ‘… Evidence for Massive Catch-up Following International Adoption’.

If the child is left too much longer, hope is not lost but it does take a more skilled set of adoptive or foster parents to help the child emotionally adjust to life.

The problem with the orphanages was that infants weren’t getting the emotional warmth or physical contact that they need. But the research teaches us an important lesson for society in general. All babies, infants, and children fundamentally need love!

A lack of love, emotional warmth and physical contact basically slows down the growth mechanisms in the brain and body. For instance, human growth hormone is produced in smaller amounts when there’s not enough love around.

It’s like the genetics of the children quickly adapt to their environment. If there is insufficient emotional richness and stimulus to grow into, the body sees no need to waste energy in growing into such an environment, and so the growth genes shut down.

And it’s not just growth genes that respond to the environment. The ‘love hormone’ or ‘hugging hormone’, oxytocin, plays a crucial role too. Oxytocin contributes to the growth of many of the body’s cells.

Research in 2010 found that when there’s insufficient oxytocin present, which an infant gets from emotional warmth and warm physical contact, the rate of growth of heart muscle cells is significantly reduced. Evidence seems to suggest that oxytocin makes a similar key contribution to the early growth of numerous cell types in the body.

Such is the stunting of growth, in fact, when a child is deprived of love that UNICEF even use a statistic from the BEIP, that “For every 3 months a child spends in an institution, it loses a full month of growth.”

Of course, having a smaller child than average in society does not mean that the child is not being loved. All children have a different genetic potential based on the genes they inherit from their parents. My mum’s brothers are all over 6-feet tall, and my Dad is around that size too. It’s not too surprising, then, that I’m also a shade over 6 feet tall. But if I had grown up in an institution where I did not receive enough love and attention, I might have been 5 or 6 inches shorter and have much lower body weight. We’re talking about the reaction of a child’s growth genes to its environment. Children deprived of love often don’t grow to their full genetic potential.

And it’s not just humans that experience these effects. Evolution has ensured that nurturing care and attention are crucial for the survival and thriving of most warm-blooded species. In a study in the late 90s, scientists observed that the growth genes in rat pups shut down when the pups were removed from their mother, and switched right back on again when the mother returned, like the pup’s genes were simply responding to their mothers’ presence.

So what do we do with all this understanding? Importantly, I think teenagers could be educated in parenting while at school, and taught about the importance of love and care for the growth of children. It can be taught as a science, giving them even a basic understanding of how the brain grows and how growth responds to the environment. That would help.

But there is still the big problem of children all around the world living in institutions or without available caregivers.

I find myself reflecting on the unimaginably huge amount of cash injected into propping up the banking system, and to stabilise failing economies, and I can’t help but feel we’re not giving the same importance in society to the upbringing and wellbeing of children, who are, quite frankly, our future.

A fraction of this money could make an astronomical difference to the care and wellbeing of children around the world. According to UNICEF, there are over 100 million children around the world living without available caregivers. That is absolutely astonishing! This is 2014! That is 100 million too many!

What can we do as individuals? Start by telling people about this. Share this information with them. Most people are stunned when I share it. When knowledge gets to people who are in a position to make a lot of changes, things can get done. We can also lobby our politicians.

And at risk of sounding soft or idealistic, I think we each have to individually try to spread more love in the world. It sounds a bit corny, we’ve all heard it before, but why not? We’re living in a socially connected world. Ideas and behaviours ripple out like stones dropped in water. Each of us can make a difference.

Lots of small acts can shift mountains!

 

References

All research quoted in this blog is taken from David R Hamilton PhD, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You’ (Hay House, 2010). Click here to view

Click here to view some information on the Bucharest Early Intervention Project. The link takes you to a downloadable PDF from UNICEF.

7 Ways that Love is Good for Your Health

Painted heartLove feels good. I think we’d all agree on that. But it also has some surprising health benefits. Here’s a list of 7 of them:

 

1) Love is good for your heart

I think we all expect this. Biologically, love produces the hormone ‘oxytocin’. It’s why it’s often referred to as the ‘Love Hormone’ or even ‘Cuddle Chemical’ (yes, hugs produce it too). Research also shows that it is a ‘cardioprotective’ hormone. Simply put, it protects your cardiovascular system: it reduces blood pressure, helps clear your arteries of free radicals and inflammation, and even helps repair damaged blood vessels.

2) Love makes you happy

Emotionally, love makes us feel euphoric. We even feel tingling sensations in our hearts. In the brain, love elevates levels of both dopamine and serotonin, which contribute to this effect.

3) Love improves general health

Some research that compared couples whose relationship was close with those whose relationship wasn’t so much, found that couples who were in a close relationship reported their health as ‘very good or excellent’. The health reports were poorer in the other couples.

4) Love is good for your immune system

Every couple has arguments. That’s to be expected. But research shows that couples who argue in a more loving, positive way, were measured to have higher immediate immune function compared to couples who showed more negative behaviour. I guess, even when we argue, we should remember to be kind.

5) Love can help you get fit

OK, this might be obvious in the sense that regular sex is good for the heart, but there is another way that love can aid fitness. We all know that many people who start on an exercise program quit within 6 months to a year (you’ve probably been there yourself – seen it, done it, got the t-shirt), but did you know that when you work out with a romantic partner, not only do you work harder (perhaps you’re trying to impress) but you are also more likely to keep the program up?

6) Love can help you live longer

Research that compares married couples (in happy marriages) with single people shows that married people lived longer. And the good news for men is that the effect is especially pronounced in us. Seems we benefit from all that nagging good advice. Married men are less likely than single men to over indulge in drinking and smoking, which is better for health in the long term.

7) Love can lessen physical pain

Researchers who measures pain perception typically ask volunteers to place their hands in ice-water or receive electric shocks. Electric shock pain-perception-studies have shown that the experience of pain is lessened when we hold someone’s hand. And it’s even better news for females – pain decreases most in women in happy marriages who held their husbands’ hand.

5 Reasons Why Good Relationships are Healthy

Heart Social NetworkWe all know how enjoyable it is to have happy times with friends and family. These times are also good for our health. Here’s 5 reasons why:

 

1) They’re good for the heart

Positive experiences with friends and family produce the hormone oxytocin. Research shows that oxytocin helps to lower blood pressure and also helps keep the chemical precursors to cardiovascular disease at bay. It is a ‘cardioprotective’ hormone (protects the cardiovascular system) and therefore good relationships with friends and family are also cardioprotective.

In fact, a 1960’s US census found substantially lower levels of heart disease in people from the town of Roseto. After years of scientific investigation into the seeming anomaly (no one under the age of 50 in the town had ever died of heart disease), it turned out that their social connectedness was they key to this. This was a highly ‘connected’ small town, where everyone knew everyone else and many households had 4 generations of family living there.

 

2) They help us to live longer

Most longevity research in the past has taught us that among the keys to living a long, healthy life are that we eat well, sleep well, exercise well, and manage our stress levels. But more recent research is now telling us that social interaction is actually one of THE most important factors in living a long, healthy life.

In fact, a 2010 study that looked at 188 Australians over the age of 100 found that a close network of family and friends was highly significant in determining their lifespan.

And here’s one for the men: Large-scale studies that compare men in relationships with men who are single show that cardiovascular health is better in married men, and as cardiovascular disease is a major cause of reduced lifespan, being in a relationship actually helps us (especially men) live longer.

 

3) They’re good for our emotional health

Having positive interactions with friends and family make us feel good. We laugh more, we feel joy, we smile more. Our spirits are generally lifted compared with not having these relationships.

Research that examines the connectivity in social networks has found that people who are more connected tend to be happier than people who have less interaction with friends and family.

And an added bonus is that we tend to be contagious when we’re happy; not in the infectious disease way but in that happiness spreads from person to person. It’s known as Emotional Contagion. Positive interactions make us happier and then we spread that happiness in the rest of the interactions we have.

 

4) They buffer the difficult times

Friends and family help us through difficult times in our lives. They provide shoulders to cry on when we’re struggling and they help us to find emotional and spiritual strength. Most people have lent on that shoulder and have also been that shoulder for someone else. The connection is something that is necessary for our thriving.

One study where people were given a stressful task found that they recovered faster if they were simply reminded of some of their positive relationships.

 

5) They’re good for the immune system

Connections with others are important for the human species as a whole. Having relationships actually ensured the survival of our species over millions of years of evolution. It’s why the oxytocin gene (which produces oxytocin and helps us bond with one another) is one of the oldest in the human genome (500 million years old).

It should be no surprise to learn, then, that having good relationships is linked with the immune system, since it is so crucial for the human species.

Indeed, a simple study where 334 volunteers were exposed to the common cold found that those who had strong relationships were about 50% less likely to develop symptoms.

 

References:

Where links are not provided, the references above are taken from my books, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You’ and ‘The Contagious Power of Thinking’.

Why Babies Need Love

Any mother intuitively knows that her children need love. Now, a wealth of scientific evidence is shining light on why this is so.

The Budapest Early Intervention Project (BEIP), a project that examined the health and development of children in Romanian orphanages, found startling evidence that when infants and children are starved of love and affection, their bodies do not grow as they should.

In fact, for every 3 months in an institution, a child loses an average of one month of growth.

One piece of good news from the project is that when children are adopted or fostered from such institutions, growth returns to normal, providing the child is removed before the age of 2. They often quickly adjust emotionally too. After this time, hope is not gone. It merely seems to require more skilled (perhaps experienced) foster or adoptive parents to help the child to adjust.

Much of the reason for this seems to lie in the development of the brain. The brain grows rapidly in the first few years after birth but, contrary to most people’s assumptions, this is not entirely according to a genetic program. The program runs in the context of the child’s environment. If the environment is rich in love, affection, attention and positive emotion, then the brain receives the emotional nourishment it needs and grows according to plan. But where the child doesn’t receive this emotional nourishment, the program runs differently and brain growth in some key areas (as well as whole-body growth) slows down.

There is a wealth of research now accumulating in this area. Some even suggests that a parent’s love can have health effects later in life. This makes sense, especially if part of the brain’s growth is laid down in early infanthood. Thus, the way the child (and eventually, adult) responds to life situations, particularly stressful ones, will be linked with this. It seems like emotional deprivation as an infant can leave the adult less able to deal with stress, like love is the vital nutrient required to build parts of the nervous system.

Some of this research has found that children growing up in poor areas have a higher risk of illnesses like high blood pressure, stroke, or diabetes in later life, which in part is likely linked with knowledge and access to healthier lifestyle choices. But recent research by scientists at the University of British Columbia and Brandeis University in Massachusetts found that, even within such areas, adults who grew up in loving households seemed to buck the trend.

One of the study authors, Gregory Miller, of the University of British Columbia, said, “Those greater risks later in life seems to be offset if the mom paid careful attention to the children’s emotional wellbeing, had time for them, and showed affection and caring.”

Love in early childhood seemed to confer some sort of resistance to these typically lifestyle associated conditions. Love aids the building of healthy biology.

And, of course, we should bear this in mind not only in how we care for our children but in how we treat each other all of the time.

Love and kindness do more for our own selves and for others than we can possibly imagine. As I have written in other blogs (and in my book, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You), kindness is actually good for the heart – an effect facilitated, in part, by the effects of oxytocin (the love hormone).

So with that in mind, I’d like to leave you with one of my favourite quotes. It’s by Mother Theresa. She said, “Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.”

 

References:

1) Click here for information on the Bucharest Early Intervention Project

2) Click here for a link to the University of British Columbia research.

3) More research on why babies need love can be found in a chapter 10 of my book, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You‘.

 

 

10 Things I Have Learned in Life

1. Be the Change.
Yes, we’ve heard Gandhi’s immortalized words so many times before, but that’s because they are so true that people keep repeating it. It means to live by the principles that you want to see in others or in the world.

2. Be open to the possibility of miracles.
They don’t always happen to you; they often happen because of you. Our hopes, dreams, beliefs, and open minds invisibly build up momentum; then they reach tipping point.

3. The mind can heal the body.
I have heard several hundred stories of people using their mind to facilitate healing in their body. The key is to imagine converting an internal picture of disease into an internal picture of health, and doing it repeatedly – every day. The mind and body are connected. Every state of mind has consequences.

4. Count your blessings.
We often get so caught up in life that we don’t notice the wonderful people right in front of our eyes, but when we do, magic happens in our own lives. We experience internal joy as we seek the beauty in them.

5. Love can really make a difference.
I have found that no matter how hard things get, love can make everything all right. A hug can make so many stressful situations feel better. Love builds spiritual strength.

6. People are inherently good inside.
We are wired for empathy and kindness. The love of the human spirit is always there, no matter how well it is hidden. Our task is to reveal it, even in our enemies.

7. Take time for yourself.
A quiet and balanced mind makes it much easier to deal with life’s ups and downs.

8. Resist the temptation to see yourself as small in any way.
I believe that we are all on a spiritual journey towards knowing ourselves in deeper and more profound ways.

9. Think about what you want and not what you don’t want.
You engineer – both consciously and unconsciously – what you give your attention to.

10. Being positive doesn’t just mean believing you’ll achieve your goals.
It can mean that no matter how hard things get, you know that you’ll get through it. There’s always a way.

The 5 Side Effects of Kindness

mother showing kindness to daughterWhen we think of side effects the first thing that springs to mind are the side effects of drugs. But who’d have thought that kindness could have side effects too?

Well, it does! And positive ones at that.

1) Kindness Makes us Happier
When we do something kind for someone else, we feel good. On a spiritual level, many people feel that this is because it is the right thing to do and so we’re tapping into something deep and profound inside of us that says, ‘This is who I am.’

On a biochemical level, it is believed that the good feeling we get is due to elevated levels of the brain’s natural versions of morphine and heroin, which we know as endogenous opioids. They cause elevated levels of dopamine in the brain and so we get a natural high, often referred to as ‘Helper’s High’.

2) Kindness Is Good for the Heart
Acts of kindness are often accompanied by emotional warmth. Emotional warmth produces the hormone, oxytocin, in the brain and throughout the body. Of recent interest is its significant role in the cardiovascular system.

Oxytocin causes the release of a chemical called nitric oxide in blood vessels, which dilates (expands) the blood vessels. This reduces blood pressure and therefore oxytocin is known as a ‘cardioprotective’ hormone because it protects the heart (by lowering blood pressure). The key is that acts kindness can produce oxytocin and therefore kindness can be said to be cardioprotective.

3) Kindness Slows Ageing
Ageing on a biochemical level is a combination of many things, but two culprits that speed the process are Free Radicals and Inflammation, both of which result from making unhealthy lifestyle choices.

But remarkable research now shows that oxytocin (that we produce through emotional warmth) reduces levels of free radicals and inflammation in the cardiovascular system and so slows ageing at source. Incidentally these two culprits also play a major role in heart disease so this is also another reason why kindness is good for the heart.

There have also been suggestions in the scientific journals of the strong link between compassion and the activity of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve, as well as regulating heart rate, also controls inflammation levels in the body. One study that used the Tibetan Buddhist’s ‘Loving Kindness Compassion’ meditation found that kindness and compassion did, in fact, reduce inflammation in the body, mostly likely due to its effects on the vagus nerve.

4) Kindness Improves Relationships
This is one of the most obvious points. We all know that we like people who show us kindness. This is because kindness reduces the emotional distance between two people and so we feel more ‘bonded’. It’s something that is so strong in us that it’s actually a genetic thing. We are wired for kindness.

Our evolutionary ancestors had to learn to cooperate with one another. The stronger the emotional bonds within groups, the greater were the chances of survival and so ‘kindness genes’ were etched into the human genome.

So today when we are kind to each other we feel a connection and new relationships are forged, or existing ones strengthened.

5) Kindness is Contagious
When we’re kind we inspire others to be kind and studies show that it actually creates a ripple effect that spreads outwards to our friends’ friends’ friends – to 3-degrees of separation. Just as a pebble creates waves when it is dropped in a pond, so acts of kindness ripple outwards touching others’ lives and inspiring kindness everywhere the wave goes.

A study reported than an anonymous 28-year-old person walked into a clinic and donated a kidney. It set off a ‘pay it forward’ type ripple effect where the spouses or other family members of recipients of a kidney donated one of theirs to someone else in need. The ‘domino effect’, as it was called in the New England Journal of Medicine report, spanned the length and breadth of the United States of America, where 10 people received a new kidney as a consequence of that anonymous donor.

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References

5 side effects jacket imageReferences to all studies can be found in David R Hamilton, PhD., ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness‘ (Hay House, February 2017).