THE POWER OF TOUCH: TRIMMING YOUR WAIST LINE

Whether It’s holding hands, petting the dog, or getting a back rub – all of these can influence our physical and emotional health. Because skin is our largest and perhaps most sensitive organ, it provides us with ample opportunity to reap the benefits of touch. Studies on touch suggest it may reduce stress, ease arthritis pain, increase airflow in asthmatics, and improve immune function, and remove fat from your stomach and waistline. Other research shows that babies who receive little physical affection develop abnormally. In a touch-deprived culture like ours, I encourage people of all ages to find ways to touch and be touched.
Touching is an easy connection to make because it feels so good. I hug my friends as often as possible and urge you to become comfortable doing so. Tools like hand-held massagers can’t replicate the human interaction, so give a massage or get one, dance with a partner, and create social connections that are physically and emotionally meaningful. In addition to everyday interactions, there are many different touch therapies to choose from. Hands-on approaches such as Reiki and reflexology influence the flow of energy throughout the body, while manipulative techniques, like chiropractic care and massage therapy, affect body structure.
Many benefits of touch are attributed to a reduction in Cortisol, a stress hormone produced by the adrenal gland. Scientists have also observed changes in heart rate and blood pressure after touching certain points on the body and noted changes in brain chemicals thought to affect stress and pain.
Although studies have focused on touch therapy rather than everyday touch, the science likely applies to both. In recent studies, massage at moderate pressure was effective in lowering Cortisol levels, while light pressure showed no effect. This may explain why people prefer a firm handshake, says Tiffany Field, MD, lead researcher and director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine.
Dr. Field is looking for the mechanism behind reactions to touch. “We did research with HIV and breast cancer patients and were very surprised that touch had a positive effect on the immune system. When we looked at the underlying cause, we found that touch decreased Cortisol levels,” says Dr. Field. “We know Cortisol kills natural killer cells, the front line of defense in the immune system. Now it doesn’t seem so surprising.”
Giving touch can be even more beneficial than getting it. A study found that the psychological effects of a massage were greater when volunteer grandparents gave a massage to an infant than when they received one. Other studies involving parents of children with chronic conditions found that the parents reduced their own stress levels by giving their children massages.
The social consequences of our aversion to touch may be far-reaching. Dr. Field thinks there’s a correlation between no-touch school policies created in the 1980s, which are still in effect, and an increase in youth violence. “When baby animals are restrained from touch, they become violent,” says Dr Field.
I agree with Dr. Field that our society has yet to truly evaluate the effects of a lack of touch. But I’m glad that massage therapy is becoming more popular, and I’m curious to see whether aging baby boomers will change our cultural bias against the elderly, who are the largest untouched population.

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