Some time after my mother had been widowed after fifty years of marriage, we talked about some of the things she missed about having her partner. She told me she missed being touched by another human being every day. She missed holding hands and hugs. Although I made it my personal mission after that conversation to give her as much contact as possible, I know I can never make up for the loss of my father. But it made me question just what kind of psychological and emotional stuff are hugs made of?

The effects of skin to skin contact have been studied for decades, beginning with how it affects babies. When someone holds a baby against their chest, interesting biological processes begin to happen. For one thing, neural pathway development within the baby’s brain begins to accelerate. This allows the brain to develop well organized neurological patterns as well as to reduce stress.

Direct skin contact with another human being causes the stress hormone, cortisol, to become lower. This begins to happen within twenty minutes or so. Babies who are held and cradled tend to be babies who display less often signs of stress, agitation and crying.

Not only does skin contact reduce the stress hormone, cortisol, but it also reduces somatostatin. This can help to reduce gastrointestinal distress and aid in the digestive process. Hugs reduce tummy aches.

It is difficult for newborns to regulate their body temperature. This natural regulatory process is still developing. It takes only minutes of cradling a baby to your chest for the baby’s body to respond and adjust its biological thermometer up or down a few degrees.

For moms and dads who are ready to get back to having a good night’s sleep and also desire to provide the best opportunity for their new baby’s brain to develop, they need to spend time holding the baby. For a baby to fall asleep easier and enter into optimum restful sleep, holding the baby helps to lower stress levels so the infant can enter into a natural and deep sleep cycle. It is within this deep sleep that the brain benefits.

Studies have also proven that the human immune system is stimulated by skin to skin contact. Holding, hugging and touching does not “pass” germs, it strengthens immune response.

As a baby’s body adjusts to self-regulation, holding and cradling helps to stabilize heart rate and respiratory patterns. Medical studies have shown than erratic breathing patterns and a slower heart rate improve as much as seventy-five percent through skin on skin contact when the baby is cradled and held closely.

If such wonderful things happen to a newborn who is held and touched, how comforting and healing must a hug be for anyone? It seems benefits continue even into adulthood. By hugging my mother and holding her hand as we shop together, I am improving the quality of her life, her physical health and her emotional well-being.

The reduction of cortisol is a biological response that also occurs in adults who experience skin on skin contact with another human being. So, for adults as well as infants, hugging and cuddling can stimulate the immune system response.

Cuddling and hugging is not just about creating a warm, fuzzy feeling. It actually improves human health. When people touch in a positive way, dopamines and serotonin are released which boost a person’s mood and helps to create a “happy” effect. Just being near someone you have affection for causes oxytocin to be released. Some medical experts consider this hormone to be what is behind virtue, love, affection and trust within the human psyche.

Hugs do seem to pack a wollup of a punch that is only good, and positive and healing. Hug and cuddle in abundance this flu season as a prescription for prevention. Especially hug someone who lives alone.