How Alcohol Affects Your Body Long-Term

Drinking alcohol to cope with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic increased by 46% in the months after it began. But even moderate consumption during less stressful times can lead to long-term health risks. We want to help you make well informed health decisions while coping with stress of any kind.

Impact on Weight

In addition to being composed mainly of “empty,” non-nutritional calories, alcohol interferes with metabolic function. This means that even moderate alcohol drinking can lead to weight gain. “Research shows that as few as two standard alcoholic drinks can slow down your body’s fat-burning process by a whopping 73%,” according to Women’s Health. This may lead to weight gain, and can also make it difficult to lose weight you’ve already gained.

Effects on Brain Function

Your brain may physically shrink as a result of too much alcohol. Over time, heavy drinking causes brain cells to change and even reduce in size. University of Oxford researchers, for example, found measurable shrinkage in the brain’s hippocampus (which is associated with memory and reasoning), based on how much alcohol participants drank.

Extensive alcohol use is also associated with short-term and long-term memory issues, such as dementia, and may cause irreversible damage to cognitive ability.

Increased Health Risks & Negative Impacts

Heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and digestive issues are a few of the many health risks of drinking alcohol. There are also many cancers linked to alcohol use, including:

  • Breast
  • Liver
  • Colon
  • Rectum
  • Throat
  • Esophagus
  • Mouth

Excessive alcohol consumption also overworks the liver, leaving toxic byproducts behind in the bloodstream. At the same time, consuming alcohol increases the risk of heart issues, including high blood pressure, and stroke.

Sleep — another important bodily function —  is also impacted by alcohol. Despite being a sedative, alcohol causes sleep disruptions. Heavy drinking before bed may lead to a couple of hours of deep sleep, followed by fragmented periods of sleep and restlessness as alcohol levels drop and the brain shifts into heightened activity. This will keep you from getting the recommended 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep you need for optimal health.

Other serious health risks of alcohol consumption include mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. Alcohol use also weakens immunity and interferes with the body’s natural ability to fight infection, disease, and other illnesses.

How to Avoid Health Complications

Abstaining from alcohol — even for a short period of time — may be the best way to help avoid health complications associated with long-term use.

Moderate consumption is the next best option, though even that over an extended period of time can still lead to alcohol-related health issues. Moderate drinking is defined as two drinks or less per day for men and one drink or less per day for women. (Heavy or excessive alcohol use is defined for women as consuming more than seven drinks per week and for men as consuming more than fourteen drinks per week.) Overall, eliminating or drastically limiting alcohol consumption is vital in order to avoid the health complications associated with alcohol use.

After tobacco, alcohol is the second most common form of substance abuse in the United States. If you are concerned about alcohol use and related health complications, our specialists can help. At United Physician Group, we are committed to your health and believe in prevention and intervention. Contact us online or call 833-523-0906 to make an appointment today.

Physician-Approved Ways to Love Your Heart

In today’s love culture, news feeds and social media pages are filled with grand gestures, gifts, and of course, hearts. These can all serve as a great reminder that you can practice self-love this month and beyond by taking care of your own heart.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, heart health is the key to your overall health. So, here are a few recommendations for taking care of yours.

Exercise Builds a Strong Heart

Many know that exercise is important for maintaining a healthy heart. The American Heart Association recommends adults fit 150 minutes of aerobic activity into their weekly routines. It is also recommended to add two days of moderate-high intensity resistance or weight training.

Aerobic exercise — like walking, running, cycling, swimming, or jumping rope — helps you to improve your circulation. Resistance training specifically affects your body’s composition, building muscle mass and reducing fat, which can greatly lower your risk for heart disease.

You can also start small with stretching. Stretching regularly for 12 weeks improves your blood flow, and decreases the stiffness of your arteries. A stretching routine also decreases blood pressure and reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

A Healthy Diet Leads to a Healthy Heart

A diet does not have to mean having strict rules on your daily food intake. Instead, focus on just these three tips: incorporating more fiber into your diet, eating less saturated fats, and cutting down on sodium. Many different superfoods are extremely beneficial to your heart — like beets, olives and olive oils, and salmon. Including even some of these into your regular meal plan can give amazing benefits to your overall health.

A Stress-Free Heart is a Happy Heart

In today’s society, it is incredibly difficult to live completely stress-free. However, both acute and chronic stress can cause an irregular heart rate, or reduce blood flow to the heart. Take the time and effort to manage your stress by keeping a routine, regularly socializing, and practicing relaxation techniques like deep breathing. These can all greatly reduce the negative impact of stress on your heart’s health.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Human Connection

Since the mid 1990s, many studies have shown links between isolation and loneliness with cardiovascular issues. Heart attack survivors often experience self-isolation and stress, leading to a shorter lifespan. Along with this, seniors with no emotional connection have triple the risk of a fatal heart attack.

Research has also shown that there are possible health benefits to human-to-animal interactions. Connecting with animals can decrease cortisol levels and blood pressure, reduce feelings of loneliness, and increase feelings of social support — improving your mood overall.

They Say that Laughter is the Best Medicine…

While laughter may not actually be the best medicine for all the problems out there, it is very effective in maintaining your overall health. In the short-term, laughter can help you to soothe tension, relieve stress, stimulate multiple organs, as well as relax your arteries, which allows for easier blood flow. Long-term benefits of laughter include a boost to your immune system, an improved mood, and pain relief.

At United Physicians Group, our patients are at the heart of everything that we do. Our mission is to improve the overall health of our patients by providing a comfortable and informative experience to keep their hearts and bodies healthy. To schedule an appointment, visit our website or call us at 833-523-0906.

In Pain? How to Advocate For Your Health to Doctors

Chronic pain can cause many stressors beyond the pain itself. But talking to your doctor doesn’t need to be one of them. Though you may feel uncertain during an appointment, at United Physician Group we are committed to addressing your pain — and all of your health matters — with kindness and empathy. Here are a few things you can do to help your doctor understand your pain, and collaborate with you for solutions.

Take Note of Your Own Body

Being armed with information is one of the best ways to be proactive about pain. But this doesn’t require encyclopedic internet printouts or endless email chains of advice from your neighborhood chat group. Though research can offer extra information, what may best equip you (and therefore your doctor) is self-awareness.

“Think about the duration and quality of the pain. How you’d describe it if someone asked when it started,” Sana Goldberg, practicing nurse in New Haven, CT, and author of How to Be a Patient: The Essential Guide to Navigating the World of Modern Medicine told REWIRE. “If anything has relieved it, and if anything has made it worse. Prepare an ‘elevator pitch’ of sorts. The more you can describe it, the better you’re going to be able to work with your physician.”

Pay attention also to how temperature, food, over-the-counter pain medicines and physical activity also impact your pain. All of these details will help paint an even clearer picture, and will help your doctor plan for how to alleviate it.

Coordinate with Caregivers

“When you’re seeing a whole bunch of different specialists, they don’t always talk, which can make the diagnostic process take much longer,” Isabel Mavrides, a Latina disability justice activist and organizer explained to GREATIST. If necessary, bring everyone together in a Zoom or conference call, or even an email chain. Find the format that works best for you and your specialists, to make sure everyone is clearly connected. (Because of HIPAA regulations protecting your privacy, your doctors may then continue the conversation through more secure channels, but now they all know who is on your care team.)

A friend or family member can also help with this task. In fact, asking a trusted loved one to attend appointments with you — to take notes, ask questions, and provide thoughtful and honest feedback to your own fears and reactions in private — may help a great deal.

Ask Questions When You Have Them

Your doctor knows a lot, but she or he doesn’t always know what you want to know. When a question arises, remember that your doctor is a member of your whole-health team who wants to help. In October 2021, U.S. News & World Report shared 17 questions doctors wish their patients would ask, including those around:

  • Preventative care
  • Comprehension of what’s been shared
  • Other trusted sources of information
  • How your family history may impact treatment
  • Specifics around prescriptions
  • How sleep impacts pain and treatment
  • The reason behind tests, and what results will reveal
  • What they do for their own health and well-being

Dr. Ted Epperly, a clinical professor of family medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine underscored the importance of question-asking in Time magazine:  “Asking questions is one of the best ways to ensure you and your doctor are on the same page,” he explained. “And if your doctor doesn’t seem interested in answering, or you get a negative response, you need to find a new doctor.”

Second opinions and finding a better personality fit may also help you solve your challenges. But be sure that, wherever you go, you’re taking the most important person in the conversation seriously — yourself.

At United Physicians Group, we’re here to advocate for and with you. Connect with us online or call (833) 523-0906 for consultation.

Why It’s Important to Listen to Doctor’s Orders

Though many people managed through the worst of the COVID pandemic without access to their usual hairstylist or personal trainer, we all gained a deeper appreciation for those we rely on for our happiness, fitness, beauty, and health. And the most important person watching over your long-term health is your primary care doctor. 

Though there may be some debate about the necessity of annual check-ups for healthy individuals, listening to your doctor’s advice is beneficial for more than one reason.

Establishing Health Baselines

Your doctor may advise you to stay on top of annual physicals, as these sessions allow you both to track (and potentially treat) a variety of conditions, including diabetes and high blood pressure. A yearly physical may even help your doctor detect cancer earlier, when it may be easier to treat.

“When we meet for annual physicals, it creates a health baseline and strengthens the patient-physician relationship, which is important to maximize your wellness,” says Michael Fedewa, Jr., DO, a board-certified family physician at Duke Primary Care Holly Springs Family Medicine. “If we know you when you’re well, we’re going to be ready to provide the best care when you’re sick, and we may be able to prevent some illness altogether.”

Early detection circumvents a variety of future problems. “It’s never enjoyable to learn that your body isn’t functioning the way it should,” OnHealth experts acknowledge, “but blood tests . . . can save you from much more serious health complications down the road. Discovering what ails you early can also save you money in the long run.”

Well-Researched Expertise

Convenient and convincing as the internet (or your neighbors and loved ones) may be, your doctor is truly the best source of trusted, up-to-date medical information. 

“[E]ven the most ‘reliable’ sources can be confusing,” Minneapolis-based neurologist Dr. Frederick Strobl, told HuffPost. “They don’t have the background a medical professional has to evaluate other’s claims so if they don’t want to follow my advice, they should really seek a second opinion from another doctor, not a friend or neighbor.” 

This expert knowledge is a product of the extensive educational requirements for doctors, which include:

  • Bachelor’s or equivalent undergraduate degree in an accredited institution
  • A four-year medical degree from a medical school
  • Passing of medical board exams
  • Residency with rotations in different medical specialties (e.g., emergency medicine and in-patient hospital care) for 3-4 years 
  • American Board of Family Medicine (ABFM) certification
  • A state license to practice in the area where they work, which in many states must be continually renewed

Your doctor’s cumulative expertise makes them the best source when it comes to your whole-body health. 

An Expert Who Truly Cares

Once you find the right family doctor, you’ll have a health advocate for the long-haul. “Primary care . . . is really the patient’s medical home,” says Dr. Danielle Martin, the Chief Medical Executive and Executive Vice President at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto (WCH) and a prominent advocate for public health care. “The value . . .  is that you accompany people through their journey in life through the high points and the low points and really try to be their anchor in the healthcare system.”

When you build a relationship with your doctor through regular visits, they become a caring person who knows your family history, is better equipped to connect you with their network of specialists, and can work with your individual needs to prevent, manage, and treat any chronic conditions. More than a check-the-box chore, they can be someone who fosters your health — hopefully through your long and healthy life. 

United Physicians Group doctors are eager to be these trusted resources for you and your family. Connect with us online or call (833) 523-0906. 

Can Wellness Tools and Treatments Help Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain can be difficult to handle, and it takes trial and error to find what mitigates your pain. United Physicians Group wants to help you find the right solution, without the noise the internet brings. We’ll help you better understand your treatment options. 

Therapies to Reduce Pain 

It’s important to properly take care of both your physical and mental health when treating chronic pain. Along with physical therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and other modes of counseling can help manage the mental side effects of dealing with chronic pain. 

Physical and mental therapies can also help you reduce the stress in your life. Heightened stress can be a culprit of worsened symptoms, so taking care of your mental health may lighten the load. At-home methods of reducing stress, like keeping a routine, staying connected with friends, and paying attention when you need to rest, may provide relief.

A few other therapies have been demonstrated to help with chronic pain as well, such as: 

Don’t limit yourself to just one therapy method. A study conducted by the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment has illustrated that a team of collaborative therapy providers may be most effective for chronic pain management. So if one method doesn’t suit you, maybe a combination will.

Methods to “Add to Cart” 

Retail therapy can help too, especially if you choose your purchases with an eye toward self-care, and managing your pain at home.

  • Heating Pad and Cooling Packs: These can make it easier for you to employ either hot or cold therapy to ease your pain. 
  • Wedge Pillow: The shape of a wedge pillow can help you sit comfortably in a way that eases hip and lower back pain
  • Lumbar Support Pillow: Placed behind your back, this pillow can improve your posture while seated, which may decrease your back pain. 
  • Yoga Mat: Do yoga in the comfort of your home with your own yoga mat and bricks.
  • Probiotics and Turmeric: These are both anti-inflammatories that can help ease chronic pain. 
  • Phone Apps: There are many phone apps that aim to help manage chronic pain. These apps do not directly resolve pain, but rather act as a pain log or diary to help communicate concerns and symptoms to your doctor. 

To learn more about chronic pain management, consult with your United Physicians Group provider. We will provide the best quality care possible to help you find a treatment method that works for you. Connect with us online or by calling (833) 523-0906.

Got Chronic Pain? Don’t Stress About It

Chronic pain and stress are often intertwined. When you experience persistent discomfort, it’s natural to feel stressed about it. Unfortunately, this stress often exacerbates the pain, resulting in a frustrating cycle that can leave you feeling worse both physically and mentally. 

Fortunately, there are ways to break the stress/pain cycle. Here’s what you should know about the relationship between the two. 

How Does Stress Affect the Body?

According to the American Psychological Association, stress affects every system of the body, including the musculoskeletal, respiratory, nervous, and gastrointestinal systems. One of the most pronounced ways it can cause pain is through the tension it triggers in the body. Tensing of the muscles is the body’s natural response to stressors— a protective measure to guard against injury and pain. Under persistent stress, however, this continual muscle tension can lead to issues like tension headaches and musculoskeletal pain.

Stress also impacts the body on a chemical level. The body releases stress hormones that can have a cumulative, damaging effect over the long term. Moreover, research shows that persistent stress creates an altered chemical response that can actually intensify pain. For people with preexisting chronic pain, such as joint pain from arthritis, the cycle may feel impossible to break.

How to Cope With Stress to Control Pain?

It would be easy to fix stress-related pain if stress could simply be avoided altogether. Unfortunately, stressors are often a part of everyday life. While we may not be able to steer clear of them entirely, we can change the way we respond to them.

Finding healthy stress outlets is an important step to managing both your mental health and your chronic pain. While each person will have their own preferred stress management technique, here are a few options to try:

  •       Get some exercise. It may seem counterintuitive to exercise when you’re in pain, but even a brief walk could provide benefits. For instance, walks can help reduce joint stiffness in people with arthritis while also delivering a mood boost.
  •       Focus on sleep hygiene. If your mind is racing at night due to stress, your body isn’t getting the sleep it needs to repair itself. Promote restful sleep by avoiding electronics at least 30 minutes before bed, as the blue light from devices can disrupt your body’s circadian rhythms.
  •       Manage your responsibilities. Chronic stress can come from taking on too much. While not all stressors are avoidable, there may be ways to lighten your workload and feel less overwhelmed. Find out if you can delegate tasks at work or home, and consider turning down social activities if you don’t have the bandwidth for them.
  •       Connect with loved ones. Spending time with friends has been shown to release the feel-good hormone oxytocin, which can provide a mood boost and help you beat stress.
  •       Discover an alternate stress outlet. For some people, going for a drive while listening to music might be an effective way to decompress. For others, quiet activities like yoga, journaling, or meditation may help. Experiment with different methods to find which works for you. 

If you’re facing stress that could be causing or contributing to your pain, talk to your United Physician Group provider. Our compassionate pain management specialists are here to help find relief from all aspects of pain, including the mental toll it can take. Connect with us online or by calling (833) 523-0906. 

How to Beat the Heat with Chronic Pain

Does this situation from The Mighty sound familiar? “[W]hen it gets really warm, my body completely shuts down. All I can think of then is lying in bed and doing nothing. With heat, everything you do takes 10 times the amount of energy that it normally already does, which makes small chores even harder.”

Though summertime brings luxuriously longer evenings, and potential vacation from work and school, it can also mean an increase in suffering for those with chronic pain. 

In an effort to support your complete wellness this summer, here’s some information about why hot weather might affect your pain, and how to work around it.

Environmental Impacts

Many people who have chronic pain also have trouble regulating their internal systems when temperature and humidity change. Temperature extremes in either direction (hot to cold or cold to hot) might stress your body, and make it harder to moderate your pain. If possible, stay indoors with climate control during the hottest part of the day to avoid pain flare-ups. 

Pollution can also increase inflammation and cell-level injury, according to the American Lung Association. The Air Quality Index (AQI) can help you monitor air conditions that might influence your pain. 

Benefits of Nutrition and Hydration

A hydrated, nourished body can handle the heat better than one that is starved for what it needs. During National Nutrition Month in March, we made some recommendations regarding diet and how it can alleviate your pain, and want to remind you now that what you eat can reduce inflammation and help you feel better. 

But the main key for combatting summer pain may rest in keeping your body hydrated.

Ample hydration fights inflammation by flushing out toxins and keeping joints well-lubricated. Arthritis pain is also often exacerbated during the summer months because changes in outdoor temperatures can influence the level of fluid in your joints. Increasing your water intake may help across the board. Eating fruits and vegetables saturated with water (like melon, cucumber, and berries — all popular summer crops) can also elevate your hydration levels and (deliciously) ease your pain.

Another popular summer herb, mint, offers a natural cooling sensation. Mint teas, lotions, and soaps might provide cooling relief and lessen your pain.

Other Options for Relief

Even if it feels too warm to cuddle up, don’t forget that physical touch can help relieve both physical pain and the mental stress it causes. A hug, a massage, or a snuggle session with your favorite pet might help when the heat makes pain seem unbearable.  

A dip in the pool (or ocean, or lake) may also help. “Pools are one of the few places where we can both be more active while also actually feeling safer,” PainScience reminds us. The gravitational relief provided by floating in the water — even if only once this summer — may help your body in more ways than one.

Whether it’s through physical therapy, nutritional planning, medicinal pain moderation, or a unique combination of all and others, at United Physicians Group, we aim to treat each patient’s pain effectively. To learn more about methods to reduce pain or how hot weather affects pain, make an appointment online or reach out by phone at 833-523-0906.

How to Find the Right Family Doctor for You

In a world where telemedicine has become common, and information is digitally available at a click, what’s the need for a personal family doctor? Why go through the inconvenience of researching MDs when there’s a walk-in clinic around the corner?

The answer is that your primary physician is an important member of your whole-health team. They will be an engaged, collaborative participant at every step of your physical wellness. A long-term relationship with a family doctor can be as beneficial as any other measures you take for your longevity.

At United Physicians Group, our primary care physicians keep your best interests at the center of focus. Here are some guidelines to assist you in this important choice. 

Start with the Red Tape

To maximize insurance benefits, you’ll likely need a doctor who is within your healthcare insurance plan’s network. Start by using the insurer’s directory, and then call the individual doctor’s office to confirm they do accept your plan.

While you’re confirming, ask whether or not the doctor has hospital admitting privileges. The doctor you choose may determine which hospital you are referred to if it becomes necessary.

Consumer Reports also recommends visiting certificationmatters.org to verify board certification. Searching for malpractice claims is another part of their advice. While a lawsuit is something that can happen to any doctor, no matter their level of excellence, finding more than one or two may prompt you to look elsewhere. 

Consider Location & Hours

A family doctor whose office requires a tiresome commute for you is unlikely to be a good fit. If it’s challenging to attend your annual physical, you may be much less likely to go in for other appointments, even when you need them. 

Don’t forget to consider your schedule, too. Appointment hours that don’t align well with your routine may complicate getting care. Are walk-ins available? How far out do you have to schedule an appointment? Similarly, ask whether the office provides a platform for secure email queries, an electronic portal for accessing records, or “after-hours” consultations.

Above all, pay attention to whether you feel your doctor can take the time to give you and the members of your family quality care and attention. 

Research Available Services

Equally important are your doctor’s services and areas of expertise. Beyond annual wellness or back-to-school visits, can they provide immunizations and in-office lab tests? Are they versed in current research around cancer prevention, diabetes, reproductive, or cardiovascular health? What about mental wellness, nutritional and exercise planning, or addiction cessation?

Remember that there are many factors that contribute to your long-term wellbeing, so it’s wise to screen potential family doctors for multiple areas of knowledge, skill, and concern. 

Consider the Personal Touch

“How well you and your doctor talk to each other is one of the most important steps to getting good health care,” reminds the National Institute on Aging. Be honest with yourself about personality qualities that may be of importance to you, including:

  • Gender (Woman, Man, Trans, Gender Fluid)
  • Age
  • Language fluency
  • Communication approach (Soothing and Gentle, No-nonsense and Direct)

Doctors are professionals who understand that they won’t be right for every patient. They want you to find a good fit, too. 

When you’re ready to begin, schedule an appointment so you both can get to know each other and discuss your health history and current needs. Though it may take a few attempts, the investment in this relationship is an investment in your long-term health! 

To make an appointment with a primary care physician with United Health Group, or to learn more about our services, contact us online at your convenience. 

How to Incorporate Exercise When You Have Chronic Pain

It doesn’t take much research to uncover the benefits of exercise. Most of us already know that physical activity helps us maintain a healthy body weight, strengthens muscular and skeletal systems, can combat chronic diseases, improves sleep, and alleviates stress.

All of these exercise advantages are especially helpful for those dealing with chronic pain on a regular basis. A 2016 study published by the U.S. Association for the Study of Pain furthermore suggests that “high volume, low intensity [physical activity] may have beneficial effects on pain modulatory function in healthy older adults.” In layman’s terms this means — the right kind of exercise might actually help with your pain.

But managing exercise simultaneously with chronic pain can be a challenge. The experts at United Physicians Group understand these nuances, and we’re here to help you navigate that landscape.

Get a Solid Start

Before you begin, Healthline experts recommend consulting your healthcare provider in an initial physical examination. Talking with your doctor prior to or in the early stages of an exercise regimen can help identify any potential hazards or concerns, such as instability or dizziness, or other conditions that may determine what form of exercise will keep you active but also prevent further pain or injury.

You and your health provider can also establish a baseline for your current pain. Then you can track any increases or decreases in your pain levels as you start your exercise program.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

To reduce the risk of making your pain worse, take exercise slow. Rely on low-impact and low-intensity exercises at first, such as swimming, walking, or light resistance training. As you gain strength, flexibility, and endurance, you can increase both weight load and intensity.

Lightly warm up muscles and blood vessels before your workout, and leave time to cool down with stretches afterward. Over time, stretching will increase your flexibility and improve your range of motion. According to David Nolan, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, stretching can prevent exercise from putting too much strain on the muscle itself — another way to avoid more pain.

“Exercising releases feel-good endorphins,” says Wendye Robbins, MD, in an interview with Prevention, “which can help ease the pain all over. Start with simple exercises that target the less painful parts of your body.”

Pump Those Fluids

Staying hydrated is important for all of us, especially during a workout, but most especially for those with chronic pain. According to an interview in Spine Universe with Dana Cohen, MD, keeping well-hydrated is “the single most important thing we can do to treat and prevent chronic illness.”

Drinking water regularly (especially before, during, and after exercise) can also help lubricate joints, ease muscle cramping, and possibly improve muscle strength. Coping with chronic pain is complicated enough, without also having to worry over a new
exercise regimen. As your pain management specialists, we are here to help craft a plan that works for you. For a pre-exercise analysis, and advice on optimal workout routines, contact us online any time to schedule an appointment.

Safely Reach Out And Touch Someone if You Can (and Suggestions if You Can’t)

With Valentine’s Day falling smack in its center like a succulent cherry, February traditionally marks the month of love and affection. For many, the celebration of February 14th might include not only wine, roses, and a gourmet dinner, but also hugs, kisses, and possibly some sex. 

This year, however, February 2021 also marks the first anniversary of the United States’ public battle with COVID-19. In spite of 2020’s precautions and protocols (not to mention the current rollout of vaccines), the number of confirmed cases (and deaths) still increases daily. Nearly a year ago, Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested we may never shake hands with each other again, and the “air kiss” greeting has certainly been retired until further notice. Today, masks, social distancing, and sanitization remain vital requirements. 

So what does that mean for the Month of Love? Has our need and desire for physical affection become obsolete?

Touched by the Hand of Science

The answer is a resounding no. In fact, a scientific study in the Western Journal of Communication supports that positive physical touch is not only good for your mood and your spirit, but also for your heart — and then some. Another article in The Journals of Gerontology indicates that hugging and embracing, receiving a pat on the back, getting a supportive neck massage — or experiencing any other close physical contact — can lower heart rate, improve sleep and respiratory rates, and yield higher oxytocin levels.

Moreover, as reported in Research on Aging, high physical touch can be protective against high blood pressure. A study of 59 women (reported in Penn Medicine) has also demonstrated that women who more frequently hug their partners often have a lower resting blood pressure than those who rarely engage in physical touch. 

What’s Oxytocin Got to Do with It?

While lower blood pressure and heart rates seem to be obvious health benefits (especially during American Heart Month) why are higher oxytocin levels something worth our attention? Known commonly as “the Love Hormone,” oxytocin is generally linked to the mother-child bond and/or skin-to-skin contact. But higher levels of oxytocin help us all feel more peaceful and satisfied. 

For example, elevated levels of oxytocin have been linked to improved sleep, as well as the ability to tell our brain we’re full and don’t need that second helping of macaroni and cheese. As also summarized in Frontiers in Psychology, when our oxytocin levels are higher, it’s possible we’ll sleep better, eat more sensibly, and feel more relaxed — therefore avoiding the myriad health complications of lack of sleep and overeating. 

Oxytocin also has the ability to undo the potential negative effects of cortisol — a stress hormone — in our bodies. When at work, cortisol prioritizes the systems required for short-term survival, rather than those that sustain long-term health. Higher levels of cortisol can contribute to a weakened immune system, suppression of the digestive system and reproductive systems, and as the Mayo Clinic reported, in general, create a greater chance of getting sick.  

“Oxytocin is part of a complex system of neurohormones, but when it’s released by physical touch it can have many benefits, including laying the foundation for cognitive, social and emotional well-being.” Paula S. Barry, MD, physician at Penn Family and Internal Medicine Longwood

But What If You’re Not Romantically Involved?

A careful read of all these studies indicates that the most direct way to increase oxytocin levels is through mutually welcomed, positive, enjoyable physical contact — preferably with someone you love. But this kind of connection with a domestic or romantic partner isn’t the only type we benefit from. The Journals of Gerontology reports that even positive touch from associates or others outside our closest circles may also have benefits including improved sleep, lower blood pressure, improved respiratory rate, and decreased experience of pain. 

But we aren’t limited to contact with just people, either. Affection with our furry friends can also provide similar health benefits as that with another person. Many sources, including Johns Hopkins medicine, the NIH, and the CDC encourage interactions with animals to decrease cortisol, triglyceride and cholesterol levels, plus increase oxytocin, and reduce risks of cardiovascular disease. Even simply spending time outdoors in a natural environment with birds, plants, and other wildlife (according to the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health) is shown to improve immune functions, prevent illnesses, and reduce stress.

Hands Up for Hands-Free Positivity 

For all of us, the new landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic means safe physical connection of any kind can only happen between a few select other humans (or animals), if at all. Even Time magazine has speculated about the negative effects of this contact-deficient world.

Fortunately, there are still ways the most independent (and germ-conscious) individual can substitute the benefits of physical contact, and keep their physiology thrumming.  

  • Jump Around
    • You don’t need the CDC or Harvard to tell you physical activity of nearly any kind has myriad positive effects on the body, including improving brain and cardiovascular health, strengthening bones and muscles, reducing your risk of type-2 diabetes, and even preventing some cancers. Whether walking, running, doing yoga or resistance exercises, or dancing around your apartment, 30 minutes of exercise five times a week will provide a boost like almost nothing else. 

Whatever you’re doing to love yourself through February, we’re here for you. If you’re not already monitoring your heart and cardiovascular health, if your stress levels appear to be increasing, if you’re concerned about a lack of physical contact — or anything else regarding your well-being — please reach out. As always, there’s a lot we can do to support your whole health, even without touch. Contact us any time to schedule an appointment