Let’s talk about a lesser known impact of lockdown on our immune system: affectionate touch.
The lack of hugs, handholding, or any affectionate and supportive touches that put pressure on your outer skin not only affects your mental health but your physical health too, including your immune system.
This is because these light pressures on your skin signal to your body that you are in a safe and secure place. Without them, your survival mechanism kicks in by activating your fight-or-flight response. You may not be consciously aware of the full impact this has on your body because you may not feel it, but adrenaline and cortisol essentially drive a stress response as if you were preparing to fight or flee a scene. You can check out my previous video on the impact of sleep deprivation on your immune system as I explain how our stress hormones impact your immune system.
When you are on high alert, and especially over a long period of time like lockdown, the levels of your stress hormones are higher than normal which causes them to accumulate and flood your body. This not only feeds your anxiety, but it also increases your blood pressure and risk of developing cardiovascular disease. So how does light pressure on your skin counter this?
The light pressure on your skin activates pressure receptors beneath your skin, and this in turn sends electrical signals to the vagus nerve. This nerve is very important as it directly links your brain to your heart, gut, lungs and various other important organs and tissues. This allows your vagus nerve to control all the things your body does automatically to keep you alive such as breathing, digesting and ensuring your heart keeps beating. Your vagus nerve is essentially the pilot of both your fight-or-flight response and your rest-and-digest response.
When it comes to the light pressure applied on your skin, your vagus nerve sends signals to your brain stem which then triggers a release of various chemical signals. These include the chemical associated with reward called dopamine, the hormone associated with love and hugs called oxytocin, and the hormone serotonin which is your natural anti-depressant and anti-analgesic (which means it suppresses pain). As well as signalling to your brain, the vagus nerve causes a reduction in adrenaline and cortisol levels which slows your heart and nervous system. Studies have shown that those of us with lower stress levels and higher social support are at a lower risk of becoming sick after a viral infection. Even having more frequent hugs has an impact! So maybe there is some logic behind these platonic cuddle parties appearing on the scene.
But for those of you living alone or with others who you do not wish to be affectionate with, do not fret. Although physical touch without the meaning behind it isn’t as beneficial, you can still get some of these benefits. How? Well self-massage or any moderately pressured movement of the skin, such as during yoga, have been shown to work. Even the pressure provided by normal exercise can help. What’s important to know is that something is certainly better than nothing during these isolating and trying times.
I hope the six videos from this Immunity series have helped you navigate this complex area – but if there’s one thing I want you to have learned it’s this: only vaccines can BOOST your immune system, but you can help SUPPORT its normal function by improving your sleep, nutrition and exercise habits. Whenever you see a post or advert from anyone or any company stating a product other than a vaccine or a lifestyle can boost your immune system, then please ignore it – they are simply not qualified to recommend anything to the public. Here at Luhv, we aim to empower you with the correct science and knowledge so you can take control and be confident about the decisions YOU make for yourself.
But for now, stay safe, sane and sanitised! Written by Dr Elisabeth Thubron - Head of Science & Research