Hugs, Social Support, and Health

 In Social Support, Stress

Happily, science continues to empirically demonstrate something that we all know instinctively: positive interpersonal relationships are good for our health. If you’re seeking solid evidence for motivation this Valentine’s Day, take a look at some of the research that shows how hugs and social support promote longer, healthier lives.

In one of the most persuasive studies I’ve seen on how interpersonal stress negatively affects our health, researchers at Ohio State University’s College of Medicine designed a trial where married couples were each given a suction blister and then alternately engaged in supportive and conflict inducing interactions. The time to healing and proinflammatory cytokine production were measured, as well as the couples’ levels of hostility across both interactions. The results were striking.

Following marital conflicts, couples’ blister wounds healed more slowly, and those couples who demonstrated consistently higher levels of hostility healed 40% slower than low-hostility couples. And high-hostility couples showed relatively larger increases in plasma Interleukin-6 (IL-6) and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFα) values the morning after a conflict compared to low-hostility couples. IL-6 is one of the main signaling pathways implicated in aging and chronic disease, while TNFα is produced by macrophages during systemic inflammation.

Another study, this one from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, is particularly relevant this time of year, as cold and flu viruses waft about. Among 276 healthy volunteers given one of two rhinoviruses, those with more types of social ties (such as marriage, friendship, work-mate, or member of a social group) were less susceptible to developing a common cold, produced less mucus, more effectively cleared their nasal passages, and shed less virus.

And for a quick pick-me-up, consider doling out free hugs to the people in your life. Following up on the previous study, researchers at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh teamed up to examine how received hugs and perceived social support affects interpersonal stress-induced susceptibility to infectious disease. Perhaps not surprising, more frequent hugs accurately predicted less severe signs of illness.

Wishing you a happy, hug-filled, and healthy Valentine’s Day! And if you’re looking for more sources of social support, consider joining one of Vitality Medical Center’s group wellness programs or cooking classes.

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