The first sense we develop is the sense of touch, and human touch is critical for survival. Infants who do not receive human touch fail to grow and survive, as demonstrated by Harry Harlow’s work with primates and seen in John Bowlby and Renee Spitz experiences with orphaned children from World War II. Recent research on premature infants has continued to show the crucial effects of touch. Preemies who were given daily massages gained weight faster than others who didn’t get this extra touch, despite both groups of babies receiving the same amount of calories. The researchers believe that the moderate pressure during massage leads to gastric motility and increased activity of the vagus nerve.1 Other studies have also shown that direct stimulation of the vagus nerve can regulate gastric motility, enhance food digestion, and increase the availability of nutrients.
Touch Calms Stress Levels
Researchers have also found that touch can help stress levels by reducing the release of stress hormones in the body, and a calm touch may be one of the quickest ways to shift the body out of stress. The vagus nerve acts as the opposite of the stress response known as “fight-or-flight.” Touch has been shown to stop the release of stress hormones and begin the release of the hormone oxytocin, helping the body to relax. Oxytocin has also been shown to reduce blood pressure and promote growth and healing.
The Role of the Vagus Nerve on Health
The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the “rest and digest” system. “Vagus” means wanderer, and this nerve wanders from the brain to the gut, heart, liver, pancreas, gallbladder, spleen, kidneys, lungs, esophagus, ears, tongue, and the fertility organs in women. Given its connection to so many organ systems, when the vagus nerve isn’t working correctly, it can cause or be a contributor to multiple disorders, including digestive difficulties. Since the vagus nerve is related to the motility of the gut, having less vagus activation can increase the risk of IBS-C (IBS with constipation), and with its role in the relaxation process of the body, the vagus nerve plays an important role in the stress experienced by people with IBS. As research has shown, touch can be an excellent way to stimulate the vagus nerve.
Importance of Touch
While much research has focused on the importance of touch in infants, touch remains important throughout our lives. Unlike our other senses, which are located at specific parts of the body, the sense of touch is present all over the body’s surface. Under the skin, there are sensory neurons that carry signals from the skin to the brain.
As we grow from children into adolescents and then adults, we develop independence and may receive less caring touch, especially those of us who live alone. However, there are several touch therapies that can bring more of the healing power of touch into our lives, including massage, Rolfing, craniosacral therapy, and Reiki. In addition to these therapeutic services, consider asking a friend or loved one for a hug. It feels good, and it can also promote healing and reduce your stress.
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