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This is how touch can benefit your physical and mental health

A widespread analysis of touch intervention studies found touch benefits health no matter a person's age or its type, but there are some differences.
This is how touch can benefit your physical and mental health
Posted at 8:15 PM, Apr 08, 2024

There's nothing quite like a hug from someone you love at the end of a long day, a massage to end a stressful week or — for those who don't necessarily consider physical touch at the top of their love language list — lounging underneath a weighted blanket to wind down the evening.

No matter which way you relax, the core of these situations is how the sensation of touch affects you, and although studies in the past have often focused on specific scenarios or turned out contradictory, new analysis of that research shows it doesn't matter who or what is facilitating the consensual feeling or why; to put it simply, touch can help. 

Researchers from the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience and the University Hospital Essen shared the basic conclusion in the journal Nature Human Behavior Monday after conducting a large-scale review and analysis of hundreds of touch intervention studies. 

Overall, they found touch can benefit human physical and mental health no matter one's age or current state of wellness, though some specifications can provide higher benefits than others.

For example, the research states touch intervention is best suited for adults to reduce pain, depression and anxiety and to regulate levels of cortisol, which is the stress hormone. For newborns, touch — which is their first developed sense — is highly beneficial in increasing weight gain, the study shows.

Human-to-human touch, like a mom and baby being skin-to-skin, was shown to more effectively benefit a person's mental health than touch with an object or robot, yet researchers said that the latter form still showed "a significant effect." 

Meanwhile, the physical health benefits gained from touch showed no difference between humans and objects. This suggests your weighted blanket isn't just warm — it's also healthy. Plus, the findings can help us understand how to improve our well-being even in times of restricted human interaction, like during the pandemic, the researchers state.

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Other results from the analysis include that the duration or type of touch didn't yield an increase in health benefits, but head touch — like face or scalp massage — showed "significantly higher health benefits" when compared to arm or torso touch. 

Further, adults saw better overall physical and mental health with a higher frequency of touch sessions. Newborns did not, but they saw increased benefits when a parent was involved. Adults saw no difference in benefit when comparing touch from a familiar person versus a health care professional.

That's good news for clinical populations, who the researchers noted saw higher impacts on their mental health from touch compared to healthy people. The analysis states there were no differences in health benefits when comparing clinical disorders, with "almost all assessed" conditions seeing positive mental and physical health benefits, but neurological disorders saw increased effectiveness.

However, the researchers note there's a risk the results in the study could include false positives. There's also a chance the findings won't stand universally due to their basis on Western data. 

But they hope the findings inspire other in-depth studies on the effects of touch, such as particular types and their benefits, and how touch intervention with animals plays a role.

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