A Hug A Day Could Save Your Life

Everyone knows that Feb. 14 is Valentine’s Day, but most people don’t know why we celebrate it in the first place. Valentine was a Roman priest who is believed to have lived around 270 A.D. during the reign of Claudius II.

Emperor Claudius spent a lot of his time thinking up strategies to create the perfect army. One of his most famous was outlawing marriage for young men because he believed that bachelors made better soldiers than married men because they had less distractions. Valentine didn’t agree with Claudius’ opinion, and he continued to secretly perform marriage ceremonies in spite of the fact that it was against the law.

Eventually the Romans got wind of what Valentine was doing, and they put him to death.

Besides being a martyr for love, Valentine was actually one of the first to understand the psychology of human emotions. This young priest knew that men who were about to face danger and possible death could only be brave hearts if they went off to war with a hug from the girl they left behind.

Some 1,700 years later, researchers at the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill would prove Valentine was right on target. Psychologist Karen Grewen conducted a study in which 100 adults with spouses or long-term partners were instructed to hold hands while viewing an enjoyable 10-minute video. The group was then asked to hug for 20 seconds. The study also included a control group of 85 who rested quietly without their partners.

Then all the participants were gathered together and took turns speaking about a recent event that made them angry or stressed. When people were asked to remember such an event, it generally increased their heart rate and blood pressure. After the talk, the researchers found that the blood pressure level in the people deprived of contact with their loved ones soared. Their systolic, or upper reading, climbed 24 points -- more than double the increase for those who were permitted to hug.

Their diastolic or lower reading also rose higher than those in the group who had contact. The participants who were deprived of contact also experienced a heart rate increase to 10 beats a minute, while the heart rate in those who hugged only increased to five beats a minute.

There’s an underlying scientific explanation for the seemingly magical qualities of a hug that these researchers uncovered. Each time we hug, we increase the level of oxytocin in the blood. This hormone is known as the bonding hormone because it triggers a “caring” response in both men and women. Oxytocin stimulates contractions of the uterus during labor and the release of milk during breast-feeding, so we literally learn to depend on it in the womb.

As adults, that daily dose of oxytocin-laced hugging protects us from heart disease. And while it works for both sexes, women seem to be the greater benefactors as exhibited by the second phase of the study.

The men and women participants were taken to separate rooms where their blood pressure and levels of oxytocin were tested. The couples were reunited and instructed to sit together and talk about a time when they were especially happy. After their talk, they watched five minutes of a romantic film and then were left alone to talk to each other for another 10 minutes. Finally, the couples were asked to hug for 20 seconds.

When the researchers tested the levels of oxytocin after the hug, both men and women showed an increase. However, the researchers also discovered that all of the women had reduced levels of cortisol following the hug. Cortisol is another hormone produced by the adrenal glands as part of the body’s response to stress. The fact that the women participants’ cortisol levels were significantly lower means that females are especially responsive to the calming effects of a hug-- proving that a hug a day can go a long way to keeping a woman you love heart healthy.

The British, always know for their stiff upper lip, didn’t display their usual reserve when it came to the results of the Chapel Hill study. Dr Charmaine Griffiths, spokesperson for the British Heart Foundation, was quoted as saying in an August 2005 interview with the BBC News: “Scientists are increasingly interested in the possibility that positive emotions can be good for your health. This study has reinforced research findings that support from a partner, in this case a hug from a loved one, can have beneficial effects on heart health.”

And let’s face it: If the British can let their guard down long enough to show this much emotion, the findings of the Chapel Hill study must really be something to get worked up about! So this Valentine’s Day, if you want to show your sweetie you care and you’d also like to say thank you to the founder of one of the greatest time-honored traditions for lovers, forget the flowers and the chocolates and grab your honey and give him or her a big ole' bear hug.

In fact, don't wait for Valentine's Day. Give your love a healthy hug today.

Foxnews.com Health contributor Maria Esposito contributed to this report.

For more great information on living healthy through every decade of life, click here to check out Dr. Manny's book The Check List (Harper Collins, 2007).

Dr. Manny Alvarez is the managing editor of health news at FOXNews.com, and is a regular medical contributor on the FOX News Channel. He is chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Additionally, Alvarez is Adjunct Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at New York University School of Medicine in New York City.