Hugs and losing weight sound can be two lovely experiences. But is it that easy? Undoubtedly, they are both better than eating a carrot stick and going to the gym!
Whether you call them cuddles, hugs (or huggles) they often make us feel good. Why?
Because hugs often produce a release of a brain chemical called oxytocin. Oxytocin is produced and released by physical contact and supportive interactions with other people, pets (and even toys, but this reduces as we get older). Release of oxytocin increases feelings of trust, security and connection. On the other hand, it also reduces feelings of stress, anxiety, loneliness, isolation and anger.
I asked my seven year old boy, how many cuddles he would like a day? He said “I’m not going to tell you, but I know it’s lots” It made me smile, as I sometimes wonder if I’m an overbearing mother, and by demanding affection from my children which in some way could ‘traumatise’ him for life. With this in mind, I am now aware that it is one of the many thoughts that ruminate through my head when I’m thinking about how I parent!
Surprisingly, the process of eating actually releases oxytocin too (Kendrick 1988). Eating can feel like a reward and can be soothing because eating released oxytocin in dopamine rich brain areas.
In the case of eating, it helps us understand why we develop unhealthy relationships with food. Basically, it is because it the action of eating is soothing, comfortable and pleasurable. Hence why the term ‘comfort eating’ came about.
There are lots of other benefits from hugging.
Firstly, they can boost immunity. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University analysed results from an experiment with 404 participants . They determined social support, such as hugging were about 30% less likely to catch a cold when exposed to the virus.
Secondly, hugs can lower the risk of heart disease. When you are touched, the sensation on your skin activates pressure receptors called Pacinian corpuscles. These receptors then send signals to an area of the brain that is responsible for lowering blood pressure (the vagus nerve). Physical contact also lowers your body’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In turn, that helps ease your blood flow and lower your heart rate.
You probably know you eat for another reason that being hungry.
Notice how you eat differently when your sad, lonely or upset. We rarely want a salad to cheer ourselves up. In order to get the ‘comfort’ we need, we often turn to calorie dense, nutrition low foods. For example, I remember when I was stressed at work, often meandering to the canteen to pick up a cookie or slice of pizza. In addition to providing a great distraction, it gave me the feelings of reward and comfort. However, it was rapidly followed by sense of guilt, shame and regret. Hugs help us in losing weight because they don’t contain calories!
So, if you find that you tend to give yourself ‘little treats’ when you’re down to make yourself feel better why not have a hug. Afterall, it’s calorie free and will give you the feeling you’re really after
Other ways to get that feel-good feeling
There are other ways we can release the feel-good oxytocin though that doesn’t involve eating. Why not consider the following?
Stroke a pet
I’m a dog person but any pet will do. The process of stroking furry animals creates connection and can be great for mindfulness. I love the trusting connection that comes from petting a dog. (Odendaal 2003)
Get a massage
massages help release oxytocin and are great for de-stressing. It can be hard getting a hug if you haven’t got a ‘hugger’ to hand. You can use EFT or massage touchpoints on your hand, head or ear to help release oxytocin.
Arrange a social event or do something nice for someone you know
Basically, being around other people and have a pleasant social experience will help boost oxytocin as well. That warm feeling we have when we make or do something nice for another person gives us what I like to call the ‘Santa effect’. The Santa effect helps us feel connected and generous, which in turn helps boost the feel good chemicals in our brain
Have a conversation
If you can’t do it in person, pick up the phone and speak to someone. The human voice can help you feel connected and can release oxytocin (Seltzer 2012).
Wrap yourself up with a blanket and a warm cup of tea Physical warmth helps promote feelings of safety, trust and generosity (Williams 2008). Even if it’s just taking time out to have a warm drink and time to step away, this will still help.
Hugs help us in losing weight
In summary, to lose weight we need to eat less calories than we use. Simple?
If it was that simple, no one would be overweight. We eat when we’re not hungry because the food ‘gives’ us something, a positive intention. It’s a coping mechanism.
If you can work out what it is you ‘really’ want, you can find better, more healthy way to give yourself what you need.
When you eat to comfort yourself, or make yourself feel better you now know you are looking for the oxytocin hit that makes you feel happy (albeit temporarily). Hugs help us in losing weight because you can eat for comfort. Evidently hugs are a better way of comfort that eating.
In contrast, we can give our self the happy feeling in other ways that will last longer, feel better and contribute to your wellbeing.
To read more benefits of giving hugs read some more articles
Kendrick, K. et al, 1988. Brain Research.
Williams, L. and Bargh, J., 2008. Science.
Odendaal, J. and Meintjes, R., 2003. The Veterinary Journal
Seltzer, L. et al, 2012. Evolution and Human Behavior.