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New study suggests a hug can lower blood pressure, reduce stress

WASHINGTON—A simple snuggle can help lower blood pressure and reduce stress, a new study suggests. The researchers' theory is that a heartwarming pause and cuddle suppress stress hormones and release oxytocin, a human hormone that's associated with maternal love.

Thirty-eight couples participated in the study, which measured blood pressure, stress levels and oxytocin before and after they discussed a happy moment together, watched five minutes of a romantic film and shared a 20-second hug.

The result, according to an article in the latest issue of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, was lower levels of the stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine and higher levels of oxytocin in both men and women. Those shifts all contribute to cardiac health.

Women were found to be more responsive to warm partner contact. Dr. Karen Grewen, a psychiatrist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and lead researcher, said oxytocin and the female reproductive hormone estrogen were closely related, which may be why women were more responsive to the hormone than men were.

Grewen and her fellow researchers theorized that beneficial hormonal shifts stimulated by mellow romance are a health benefit that marriage confers. Conversely, the shifts may help explain why divorce is linked to increased mortality.

"Not all marriages appear equally protective," Grewen reported. "The quality of the marital relationship seems to play an essential role in health outcomes."

While the sample size was adequate to show a role for oxytocin, it was too small to suggest anything about causation, Grewen said. The study also lacked a comparison group that didn't receive warm partner contact.

Dr. Nieca Goldberg of the American Heart Association, a New York cardiologist, explained the psychosomatic side of the story.

"The bottom line from this study is that social support and, really, the whole emotional and psychological interaction show that the heart and mind are really connected."

She added: "Women who are in stressful marriages have higher rates of heart disease. Social isolation really has negative effects on health."

Oxytocin, the hormone whose level was found to rise with effective hugging, is known for inducing "tend and befriend" behavior in response to stress. It's found in higher levels among people who say they're in love, other researchers have concluded.

The participants in Grewen's study were all healthy couples aged 20 to 49, living monogamously for at least a year with their spouses or partners.

Must the couple be heterosexual to gain?

"There is research showing that having a same-sex friend lowers the stress response," Grewen responded. "Friends, people with pets, etc., may elicit oxytocin and there may be positive effects downstream—single people are not doomed!"

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To read an abstract of the study online, go to Psychosomatic Medicine's Web site, at www.psychosomaticmedicine.org/cgi/content/abstract/67/4/531.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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