Touching helps couples reduce stress

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Couples may be able to enhance one another’s health by being more physically affectionate with one another, new research in Psychosomatic Medicine shows.

Couples who underwent training in “warm touch enhancement” and practiced the technique at home had higher levels of oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone” and the “cuddle chemical,” while their levels of alpha amylase, a stress indicator, were reduced, Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City, Utah, and her colleagues found.

Emotional and social support is key to both mental and physical health, Holt-Lunstad and her team note, while support between spouses may be particularly vital. One important but little-studied way that people express this support, they add, is through “non-sexual, caring physical touch, such as hand-holding, hugs, and sitting or lying ‘cuddled up.’”

To investigate how this caring touch might affect stress levels, the researchers 36 married couples who were assigned to a Couple Contact Enhancement group or to a “monitoring only” comparison group.

The contact-enhancement subjects received training in “listening touch” — which involves increasing awareness of the partner’s mood by touching his or her neck, shoulders, and hands — and training in neck and shoulder massage. Couples were instructed to practice the techniques together for 30 minutes three times a week for four weeks.

The people in the control group kept a record of their physical affection and mood, but were asked not to change their normal behavior.

All study participants had their blood pressure, amylase and oxytocin levels checked before, during and after the intervention. The researchers also tested their blood levels of cortisol, a hormone key to the body’s stress response.

During the first week, the researchers found, the couples in the warm touch group had more oxytocin in their saliva than the control couples, and their levels remained significantly higher in the last week of the study. The men and women in the intervention group also had significantly lower levels of salivary amylase than those in the control group by the end of the study.

Among men in the intervention group, blood pressure was reduced after the four weeks. There were no differences between the two groups in cortisol levels.

“Our data suggest that warm partner contact may be particularly cardioprotective for men,” the researchers write. They conclude: “These findings may help us better understand the protective mechanisms of positive marital interactions in the prevention of stress-related diseases.”

SOURCE: Psychosomatic Medicine, November/December 2008.

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